Manufacturing in the spotlight at state conference

Posted on May 18, 2011 :: Insight on Business, Web Exclusive.
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With its core “Power of People” theme, the 14th annual Manufacturing Matters! Conference appeared to resonate with attendees concerned about issues like aging work forces. The attendees also heard from state officials including Gov. Scott Walker that as Wisconsin manufacturers strengthen their talent base, they already are seeing benefits from a more business-friendly policy environment.

Talent management issues were stressed in many of the keynotes and panels at the conference, hosted by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership and held at downtown Milwaukee’s Frontier Airlines Center. Slightly more than 300 attendees gathered for Tuesday’s day-long event, which included featured speakers Walker, State Secretary of Commerce Paul Jadin, David DeLong, an author and expert on talent management, and Susan Schmitt, senior vice president of human resources at Rockwell Automation.

While the conference covered a mix of topics, much of the focus was on people issues like talent management, partnering, and leadership development. Delong advises companies to clearly define talent management responsibilities, link talent investments to business strategies, and prioritize the most critical gaps or risks. When you lose critical experience, DeLong says, it becomes difficult to expand or take on new initiatives. “You run the risk of repeating old mistakes,” he says.

Attendee Lee Hoffman, VP and general manager of Feeco International, a Green Bay-based manufacturer of capital equipment to industries such as mining and agri-chemicals, says talent management is a top concern at Feeco, whose average tenure for engineers is 22 years, and for management and administration, 17 years. “That amount of experience is both a real strength, but also potentially a weakness if we don’t capture that knowledge,” says Hoffman.

Feeco works closely with technical colleges to help develop the regional talent base and find employees, while internally, it works to capture knowledge. Some of its engineering know-how, he adds, is being modeled into a software package for product configuration and estimating. “We’re trying to capture as much of that tribal knowledge as we can,” he says.

Rockwell is a global, multi-billion dollar company, says Schmitt, but it still faces the same type of talent challenges. Today, she says, about 22 percent of the company’s engineers are of retirement age, but that will skyrocket to over 40 percent in just a few years. “It’s important that you understand your own demographics and the gaps those reveal,” she says.

On the state policy front, Walker noted early successes in job creation.  “In the first three months [of the year], we saw 24,000 new jobs created in the private sector, and 11,100 of those jobs have come in manufacturing,” he told the crowd.

Rather than big expansions from large companies, Walker adds, the growth is “going to come from small to mid-sized employers, particularly when it comes to manufacturing. That’s where the growth is.”

Jadin discussed the new Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a public-private entity he will head that replaces the state department of commerce later this year. WEDC streamlines commerce by moving regulatory functions to another department, allowing it to focus on business growth, says Jadin. Perhaps most important, he adds, the revamp allows for significantly more funding for growth programs.

Jadin says the WEDC model will allow it to raise $4 million to market the state while adding another $1 million from WEDC for a $5 million marketing budget, which compares to just $22,000 for marketing the commerce department had last year. Another new effort involving WEDC, says Jadin, is a proposal before the legislature (the Wisconsin Jobs Act, Senate Bill 94) that would allow for the creation of two funds for venture capital and angel investing. Jadin says each fund would have $200 million at its disposal. “We will be allowed to do far more in terms of giving birth to businesses, helping early-stage businesses grow,” he says.

–By Roberto Michel