The national spotlight has shined brightly here in recent months as Oshkosh Corp. has won a series of major contracts to build specialty trucks for the Army. It’s a reminder that the innovation and hard work here should outshine any outdated clichés of the old economy.
When I joined a group of reporters from the national and regional press to tour an Oshkosh plant last November with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, he told employees that their work was certain to keep the troops even safer than they had been with the mine-resistant, ambush protected (MRAP) trucks he has long championed.
The new version of the MRAP all-terrain vehicles (M-ATVs) designed, tested and built at Oshkosh Corp. keeps troops safer because they can drive in rugged, off-road terrain, protecting troops from the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) placed in roadways in Afghanistan.
The M-ATVs have resulted in the hiring of about 600 workers since Oshkosh began making them last summer, with positive ripple effects reaching hundreds of supplier companies in our region. The company spent millions in research and development over the past decade as it geared up for this potential new business.
Just as we went to press, Oshkosh learned that its $3 billion bid to build trucks in the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTVs) over the next five years, challenged by two competitors, would come through. The challengers did not believe that any company could build trucks at the price, with the quality, and in the timeframe Oshkosh proposed. But Oshkosh has proved its efficiency and quality with the new M-ATV – consistently coming in on budget and ahead of schedule. I had to double check the number of zeros on the figure Oshkosh said it would save the federal government over the next lowest bidder for the FMTV: $450 million. Not thousands, but millions.
Our gain is another community’s loss, unfortunately. The FMTV has been built for 17 years in Sealy, Texas, by BAE Systems (headquartered in England), and thousands of jobs there are in jeopardy. From news reports out of Texas, it was obvious that the folks down south believed they were entitled to this work. Why? Because they built FMTVs for so long – and a lot of powerful politicians in Texas got involved. Fortunately, politicians in Wisconsin fought for fairness.
“We are blessed that we have senators from this state that support us, like Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold,” said Oshkosh Corp. CEO Robert Bohn.“We’re very lucky that we have representatives like Dave Obey and Steve Kagen and Tom Petri. All they’re doing is what I’ve asked them to do: make sure that everything continues on a level ground and that we have a fair chance.”
A Feb. 15 profile on Gates in Time magazine described the importance he places on quality: “Lots of defense contractors and program managers underachieve, yet they almost always get away with it. Not under Gates.” While it did not reference the FMTV program, the same article did mention the reporter’s visit to Oshkosh last fall, and the pride with which employees described their work.
However, in spite of the vivid show-and-tell of the company’s innovations, the Time reporter incorrectly stated, “Oshkosh Corp. … is one of the few employers around.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. While it’s true that Oshkosh Corp. is the largest employer in Oshkosh, the city enjoys a diverse economy, with Bemis, Miles Kimball, 4imprint, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and robust health care facilities. And while it’s seen better times, Oshkosh has actually weathered the economic recession somewhat better than other parts of the state and indeed, most parts of the country.
But old stereotypes are hard to shed. As competition with businesses nationally and globally heats up, we in the New North have to stay vigilant about sharing our true story.
It’s only fair.