News & Media

Rick Merdan column: Local manufacturing still matters

Wed. Dec 21, 2011

Manufacturing Matters. That is the name of an annual Wisconsin conference of manufacturers, but it also describes the reality for all of us here in central Wisconsin. With the bleak news and stark reality of numerous business closures within the last decade, it is easy to see why many have written off the manufacturing sector like we did the dinosaurs. The recent news on the impending shutdowns of the Brokaw mill and the SNE plant are further blows to our collective psyche. The good news is this latest news is not the end of the story. For every headline plant closing there are dozens of thriving manufacturing operations that are adding jobs. Regarding the outlook for manufacturing, the reality can be summed up in a quote from Mark Twain, “The news of my death is highly exaggerated!”

Let’s look at the data. It is true that the country has lost over 5 million manufacturing jobs in the last decade (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). There were seismic shifts that occurred following the tech bubble burst and more recently during the “great recession”. Manufacturing employment fell from over 17 million to under 12 million. Many analysts end the story there, but as Vince Lombardi said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get back up.” Manufacturing employment is getting back up. Sector employment has slowly clawed its way back up increasing by over 300,000. In Wisconsin, manufacturing employment fell from over 560,000 to less than 420,000, but has since rebounded by 4 percent or over 17,000 (Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development). So the bottom line is there is life yet in this sector; the patient is not dead and is making a steady recovery. In fact, in a recent report from the Boston Consulting Group entitled, “Made in America, Again”, a thorough analysis indicates that economic fundamentals are changing. Many products that had once been outsourced to other countries are returning for manufacture here once again.

Now for some qualitative perspective, as Paul Jadin, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation CEO stated recently, “We need to attract more people into manufacturing and let them know it is not ‘dirty, dumb, and dangerous'”. As such, I invite you to check out the website “Gold Collar Careers” at www.goldcollarcareers.com/successStories.php. This site showcases six state manufacturers, the types of employment opportunities, and includes our very own Ocean Spray Cranberry plant here in Wisconsin Rapids.

Further, as evidenced by several recent articles from Gannet Central Wisconsin Media including “Made in Central Wisconsin” and a manufacturing employment special report, manufacturing is getting more respect as a growing sector. Employment occupational growth rates in the double and triple digits are identified. Many area employers are having a hard time finding qualified, skilled people to fill their needs, this at a time when Wood County unemployment remains stubbornly high. This, my friends, is what is called the skills gap. Jobs out there and people out there but without help, the two shall not become one. Thankfully there are many helping hands working to address this issue. The North Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, Mid-State Technical College (MSTC), and Community Foundation of Greater South Wood County Workforce Central project, among others, are all working on becoming matchmakers. The Workforce Central project brings a collaboration of 11 area manufacturers together to define and address business needs including workforce development. As an identified need, a new Food Manufacturing Science curriculum was developed at MSTC. This 20-credit program enables area dislocated workers to receive the training, skills, competencies, and credentials to find employment in this growing sector. Two-thirds of the initial group of students, some having been unemployed for several years, are now in active employment.

And where do we go from here? Local food manufacturing expansions have and are occurring in our area contributing to the state sector growth. There will continue to be employment opportunities within this sector. Workforce Central and our partners will continue to work to provide opportunities for needed skill development. There is a bright future for our area, and part of this future is dependent on making things, food, paper, chemicals, print, cores, stuff for here and the growing demands abroad. Join us on the path to this future.

Rick Merdan is the Community Foundation of Greater South Wood County Workforce Central Manufacturing Peer Council facilitator, Wisconsin Rapids.

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    Established in rural Wisconsin in 1994 to serve the changing needs of the south Wood County area, Incourage has become a nationally-recognized leader in place-based philanthropy and community development. Guided by values of equity, opportunity, and shared stewardship, Incourage envisions a community that works well for all people. One physical manifestation of this vision is the redevelopment of the Tribune building, which demonstrates Incourage’s user-centered approach to growing a strong and inclusive local economy.