John Davis, CEO of Great Northern Corp., Appleton, is a founding member and past president of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, a group of manufacturers working with schools, workforce development boards, chambers of commerce and state organizations to promote manufacturing in the New North region. Insight Editor Margaret LeBrun sat down with him to discuss why all eyes are on manufacturing as our economy continues its roller coaster ride.
At a recent quarterly meeting of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, we went around the room and talked to the 40 attendees about their No. 1 concern. To a person, everyone there talked about their concern finding good, skilled people who could help them grow their business. Even with all this economic turmoil we’re under, it still is the No. 1 concern for manufacturers.
The Manufacturing Alliance is promoting the concept that we are no longer dark, dirty and dangerous. There are exciting, challenging careers in manufacturing and we need to break that stereotype.
If you walk into a modern manufacturing facility, it is a high-tech, fast-paced, challenging environment driven by global competition. The complexity within our operations has gone up in the last 10 years, and as we continue to reinvest, we’re now asking people to run million-dollar machines that were once semi-automatic or manual operations. It requires a higher skill level from our employees.
We’re also very concerned about demographics. A majority of our employees are guys like myself, in their 50s and 60s, who in the not-too-distant future will be retiring. We don’t have a strong, experienced, knowledgeable workforce to replace them. We need to improve the skill set of younger people and then improve our brand image to attract them. We also need to find ways to train and re-train employees that have been displaced. Some industries are just not going to be competitive in our area, and we need to find those people and give them the ability to be re-trained and get back into the workforce. Gaps are developing between their skill levels and what the new applications of technology might mean to their industry. That’s where the Alliance comes in.
In high schools, students need exposure to the STEM curriculum – science, technology, engineering, math – it is really critical. The job of the Alliance is to bring manufacturers into the schools, or bring the students out to the manufacturing sites and give them exposure.
Right now, the greatest threat to manufacturing is this environment of uncertainty. Manufacturing is by its nature a long horizon, planning venture. So without that certainty – whether it’s about the national debt or the value of the dollar, health care or the tax structure – it is really difficult to plan. We’re very much in a reactive mode, and we’re putting projects on hold that might otherwise have moved ahead.
Having said that, at Great Northern – a 1,000-employee firm based in Appleton with 11 manufacturing locations around the country – we’ve been able to deal in that environment in a few ways. We’ve worked hard to recruit and keep the best people. We’re buying a lot of technology and equipment to aid in productivity. It has helped us ensure service and quality and responsiveness for our customers. That’s how we’ll drive our business forward.
A difficult transition has occurred in manufacturing. We’ve seen several industries disappear and others in real trouble. Assembly of small appliances in Wisconsin is gone, lost to global competition. The printing industry is under severe pressure.
Having said that, the food industry is doing extremely well; that’s an industry that will be difficult to be hurt by imports. Durable manufacturing has done very well and is a source for tremendous exports. We expect that to grow.
Manufacturing employs 24 percent of all employees in Wisconsin, double the national rate. Wisconsin is the No. 1 manufacturing state in the country. We have a responsibility to change the brand of manufacturing in Northeast Wisconsin – and we need to be talking about our successes.