Time for Manufacturers to Stop Bad-Mouthing Manufacturing

In the early 1980s, when manufacturing jobs were leaving the state in droves, the economic rallying cry became "diversification."

For a while, we even bought into it, but globalization has a funny way of shaping things to come. What is Wisconsin's position a generation later? The state has the highest percentage of its jobs in the manufacturing sector.

How's that diversification working out for ya?

In truth, both the economy and manufacturing diversified, and many of our manufacturers are, by choice or necessity, global players. So why does one prominent Wisconsin manufacturer, Tom Duffey, president and owner of Plastic Components, worry that our tendency to cry a river about the state of our manufacturing sector is driving young prospective employees away?

It's largely because we've done it to ourselves with a high degree of puzzling self-flagellation. "We've created a dangerous wave here because we've scared the hell of them for the past 15 years," Duffey said during a panel discussion at the recent Manufacturing Matters Conference.

It's not a trivial concern, especially if some of the subsequent comments about "losing a generation" of young workers is really true, and especially in a state where, according to Brian Baker of Sentry Equipment Corp., there always will be more demand for welders, machinists, and assemblers than there will be people to fill them.

Remember that the dotcom bust drove young people away form computer science careers for years — the same young people who rush to the stores to buy the latest next-generation gadget. Better to consume them than to program or design them, I guess.

So to the extent this wealth-creating sector has been engaged in self-flagellation, it's time to embrace the dominant role manufacturing now occupies in the state's economy.

As much distain as I have for today's political class, Gov. Doyle has at least tried to keep manufacturing's head above water with a research and development tax credit program and an even newer manufacturing sustainability initiative, the Green to Gold Fund. It's a $100 million revolving loan fund to help manufacturers reduce their energy costs, with money to be made available at competitive rates.

New Commerce Secretary Aaron Olver noted that it's starting with a pilot program in which 50 companies have been selected to create pathways for others to learn and benefit from. "You can be sustainable and profitable," he asserted.

If the state can show this kind of commitment, why can't manufacturing develop more self-esteem?

During Manufacturing Matters, the general tenor of the industry is that it has emerged from the recession and is starting to grow again, however gradually. It will be harder to ramp up growth if the sector chases young people away.

So start talking up the industry that makes things. To paraphrase a motto from the '80s, Wisconsin manufacturing is in a fine state.

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