News & Media

Investing in Workers Pays Off for Businesses

Sat. Feb 11, 2012

By: Barbara Dyer, Kelly Ryan Lucas and Kathryn Dunn

Master Lock has received recognition for “insourcing” production work to Milwaukee from abroad.

Who delivers the best padlocks, Craisins and computer carts? Wisconsin is the source of these products, of course, as they roll from our shop floors to national and global customers. Because the factories that produce these goods—and thousands of others—are succeeding against fierce competition, Wisconsin manufacturing jobs are once again growing. The latest statistics show 30 consecutive months of rising employment and production nationwide.

How can we sustain and accelerate this renaissance?

The keys are found in advanced manufacturing—companies that are integrating new technologies into production methods and product lines. Such changes alter the work and the businesses that implement them.

The change for manufacturing is like today’s hybrid cars compared with 1980s Yugos. Hybrids rely on cutting-edge batteries. And skilled, engaged and flexible workers power high performance.

But businesses have trouble finding enough skilled workers. Experienced workers must constantly upgrade their skills and extend their range. And thousands must prepare to fill new jobs and replace a cohort of retiring employees.

To succeed, we must learn from the companies that deliver great performance and great jobs. Here are three lessons:
Focus, invest and cooperate: Sales of sweetened dried cranberries are rising quickly, and growth is likely to continue. Ocean Spray’s ultra-modern plant in Wisconsin Rapids, managed by Kirk Willard, processes Craisins. Recently, the cooperative invested another $90 million there, adding 125 jobs. To run this high-tech system and to meet performance and quality standards requires workers with higher basic skills, ever-expanding knowledge and specialized certifications. Ocean Spray invests in its workers and is seeing the returns.

But that’s not all it does. With grants from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions and leadership from the Incourage Community Foundation, Willard works with 10 peers in a food manufacturing cluster. This employer group clarifies needs, hones curricula and supports workforce development. They work and succeed together in improving a key “supply chain”—the region’s job training and technical college programs.

Build from comparative advantage and prepare for retirement bulge: Master Lock Co.’s Chief Executive Officer John Heppner is getting the star treatment because Master Lock is “insourcing”—shifting production to Milwaukee from abroad. As costs rise elsewhere, companies see advantages in making more here at home. Master Lock will continue “insourcing” jobs due to a competitive cost structure, greater control and better customer service.

But the skilled workforce is aging. Almost half of Wisconsin’s manufacturing workers are 45 or older. And the number of younger people exposed to these careers is declining. That’s where the Milwaukee Area Workforce Funders Alliance (WFA) steps up.

A consortium of private and public groups and also supported by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, WFA is improving the region’s training and worker development programs. Manufacturers are hiring. But unemployment remains high, and there are many barriers to low-skilled job seekers. Area manufacturers are poised for hiring, but finding qualified workers is challenging. The WFA supports the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership to provide the training and placements that fulfills companies’ needs—especially for smaller companies.

Revamp business strategies: HUI Manufacturing is a long-established business in Kiel. Led by its chief executive, Kurt Bell, and President Dan Ruedinger, the business transformed itself from a maker of commodity products to a top innovator. It designs and builds custom medical, industrial and computer carts. Using such concepts as lean manufacturing along with advanced technology and teamwork on the factory floor enabled the company’s shift from high-volume manufacturing to highly engineered and customized products that can be delivered rapidly. The results are big for the business—and for HUI’s employees.

The company’s 90 workers are productive, engaged and offer flexible skills. The new strategy demands new workforce capacities. Skill development, as well as interpersonal and team training, drives HUI’s success. HUI University offers on-site, staff-delivered training. Classes develop business skills such as problem-solving, lean manufacturing and standard work procedures. HUI’s health care and industrial customers like the results. Revenues jumped 50% from 2003 to 2008. Post-recession sales are growing, now exceeding $14 million.

After taking an enormous toll, the recession’s choking grip has loosened. Creating opportunity and jobs are the top issues to address. As economic vitality remains fragile, safeguarding it requires that all – public, private and philanthropic; state, local and federal; and firms of all sizes and shapes—think and act differently.

Barbara Dyer is president and chief executive officer of The Hitachi Foundation and co-founder and former chair of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions; Kelly Ryan Lucas is chief executive officer of Incourage Community Foundation-Serving South Wood County and chair of the Workforce Central Funders’ Collaborative; and Kathryn Dunn is vice president, community investment for the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and co-chair of the Milwaukee Area Workforce Funding Alliance.

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  • About Incourage

    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.