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State's manufacturers at a crossroads

9:20 PM, Feb. 23, 2013  |  Comments
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One of the great things about my job is the opportunity I have to talk with business leaders across the state and hear their opinions on manufacturing and the success of their business.

It's a critical time for Wisconsin. Almost half of the state's economy depends on manufacturing. It directly accounts for 19 percent of our GSP and drives another 28 percent in support services.

Many of the trends that devalued manufacturing over the past three decades have reversed - including the drive to offshore many key operations. We need to take advantage of these changes and manufacturers who are coasting won't cut the mustard.

Wisconsin is in terrific position to take advantage of these new trends. We are the No. 1 manufacturing state in the No. 1 manufacturing country in the world. We have a diverse manufacturing base and the infrastructure to support it: good people, good resources, and a willingness to address the tough issues in order to make us successful in the future.

Action is key to success. In basketball, they say you are only as good as your last jump shot. That's just as true in manufacturing. Manufacturing drives whole economies by creating value and employing people at family supporting wages. Other regions want our manufacturing base and are working hard to win it. Consistent, meaningful improvement and innovation are critical to keep our advantage.

The best manufacturers do just that. There is a foundry in Wisconsin that has increased output by more than 90 percent during the past two years. It is growing and improving its margins - making it difficult for the competition to keep up.

A local electrical component company reduced its lead time from more than 10 weeks to less than 36 hours. That reduction in cycle time also reduced costs and made it nearly impossible for its competition (especially foreign competition) to hold onto market share in the most profitable niches.

We live in a time of tough choices, but this isn't one of them. Manufacturing is the heart and soul of our state's economy. Supporting manufacturing means effectively dealing with the skills gap, developing peer communities as a catalyst for change, and creating the supporting expertise necessary to solve common problems in Wisconsin.

One of the core factors in the skills gap will be the 750,000 experienced workers that will reach retirement age in the next seven years. Today, thousands of manufacturing jobs are open, stunting our economic growth. Fortunately, leaders throughout the state are coming up with terrific ideas to close the gap.

It is also essential to develop and support a network of resources that manufacturers can use to build their competitiveness. Consultants only consider a bit of this need - providing point solutions that solve immediate problems. Other resources are required to take on systemic needs and opportunities throughout the manufacturing community.

It's a critical time for Wisconsin's economy. Manufacturing drives nearly half of its ongoing performance and needs to stay abreast of the latest trends and techniques. That requires manufacturing leaders with the will and talent necessary to make significant change, and an infrastructure created to support their growth and development as companies. Wisconsin can make that happen.

- Buckley Brinkman is executive director/CEO of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He can be reached at 608-240-1740 or via email at brinkman@wmep.org.

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