The Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s Manufacturing Matters! conference drew nearly 450 attendees to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Milwaukee with an action-packed agenda.

The main event on Feb. 25 featured a full day of main speakers and breakout sessions. The day began with a keynote address from Giacomo “Jack” Fallucca, owner and leader of the day-to-day operations at Milwaukee-based Palermo’s Pizza.

Fallucca became president of Palermo Villa Inc., which does business as Palermo’s Pizza, in 1985. The company employs more than 650 workers at its manufacturing plant and office facility in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley.

He spoke about the challenges and opportunities the company has encountered as it transformed from a bakery and then a popular restaurant before expanding into a nationally recognized food manufacturing company.

Fallucca spoke of the importance of developing a quality plan that allows for monitoring and measuring success. Palermo’s “lives and dies” by its plan, he said.

Following the plan, Palermo’s sell 100 million pizzas per year and had $350 million in sales in 2015 with plans to grow to $500 million by 2019.

Palermo’s brands includes Primo Thin®, Pizzeria, Screamin’ Sicilian™ and its two newest products – P’mos™ and Mission Pizza. Palermo’s also is the nation’s leading producer of premium private label frozen pizza for the retail and club industries.

Gov. Scott Walker then addressed the crowd, starting off by emphasizing how manufacturing continues to play a major role in the state’s economy.

“You think about the economic impact, it’s unbelievable. Just in manufacturing alone, there’s a $55 million impact on the state’s economy,” Walker said.

Getting young people interested in manufacturing continues to be of the utmost importance, he said.

“When I talk to young people, one of the things that I particularly mention, not that money alone should be the sole factor, but in this state the average manufacturing job makes 24 percent more than an average job in general,” Walker said.

He also stressed the importance of the manufacturing tax credit, which has been almost completely phased in this year and allows manufacturers to re-invest money into their companies.

Walker said he’s still hearing, as he travels throughout the state, manufacturers lamenting about having open jobs that they can’t find candidates to fill.

“It’s only going to be a bigger challenge because it’s not just that there are openings today. The median age in manufacturing continues to go up and over the next five to seven years we will have more and more of the baby boom generation at or near retirement age,” Walker pointed out. “It’s not just the loss of people, but highly trained, well-prepared people that are the lifeblood of your manufacturing operations.”

In order to prepare manufacturing’s future workforce, the state has set aside funding to conduct academic career planning as early as sixth grade, Walker said.

Walker also is convinced that expanding dual enrollment, which allows students to earn college credits while still in high school, will drive interest in manufacturing.

“I’d love to have every one of our school districts, either on their own or in partnership with one or more school districts, to have dual enrollment,” Walker said. “The young people who are actively engaged in dual enrollment in our schools, they get a head start on their careers.”

Walker also stressed the ways manufacturing is evolving.

“The old adage is that if you had a strong back and a good alarm clock you could work in manufacturing,” he said. “Today, young people have to have skill sets and oftentimes will have to work multiple pieces of equipment. That means things like paying more attention in math class.”

Throughout the day, attendees benefitted from breakout sessions led by industry leaders, including Ray Allen, newly appointed Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development; Janice Lemminger, Executive Vice President of ManpowerGroup; Ed Morris, Vice President of the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining and Director of America Makes; Dr. Ananth Krishnamurthy, an Associate Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Check the WMEP’s web site later this year for information on Manufacturing Matters! 2017.