As a proud son of the Midwest (yes, my family does exchange holiday cheese, and yes, it’s delicious, we have no regrets), I was particularly interested in the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Partnership Extension (NIST MEP) virtual round table for Midwest manufacturers. All our nation’s manufacturers are important to me and, of course, we at NIST MEP love them all equally, but there’s always a certain extra curiosity about how the home team’s doing, isn’t there? On Aug. 26, 2020, we brought together manufacturers virtually as part of a series of conversations about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic impact. Our goal in hosting these listening sessions, which we call the “National Conversation with Manufacturers,” was to discern how best to support manufacturers through the current uncertainty and beyond.
I am proud to say that these manufacturers conveyed feelings that ranged from what could be called a make-do, can-do calm to “infinity and beyond” (Buzz Lightyear references for the win) even in the midst of concurrent public health and economic crises that have impacted daily life and normal business activity. I (we) learned a lot from this discussion. Here are some of the findings stemming from the conversation we had about the “Great Lockdown:”
- Two of the four manufacturing leaders reported that their operations are on plan, or even up, despite what may be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. For a third, strong product demand among individual “hobbyists” has helped offset losses in industrial sales.
- Communication and relationship-building — even love — featured prominently as the “soft skills” needed for leadership success, particularly in a time of disruption. The health concerns — and required distancing in response — has left them thinking about the strength of their connection to their workers, suppliers, customers and communities.
- Finding and retaining workers with the necessary skills and interests to succeed in an increasingly technologically advanced manufacturing environment continues to be a top-of-mind concern. An abruptly high level of unemployment has done little to ease the workforce challenges they had faced in the months and years before the pandemic.
- Plans for investments in automation and robotics to enhance operations and improve competitiveness are continuing. They describe workforce challenges as driving their adoption of automation while also acknowledging the difficulty in finding workers who can program and operate increasingly complex machines.
- They are moving forward, seeing opportunity and taking advantage of the MEP National NetworkTM and other available resources.
American manufacturers are survivors. Contributing to their equanimity are the lessons and grit forged from surviving previous economic recessions and decades of deindustrialization throughout the Midwest. In particular, their operations have continued to be shaped by their experiences through the Great Recession. They have kept processes lean, made cash management paramount and focused on sustainable practices. If you know anything about winter in the Midwest, you know we know how to hunker down and make the best of things. The weather always improves eventually. You just have to wait and be ready.
We heard that access to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has helped these manufacturers. PPP forgivable loans staved off planned job cuts in the weeks following mandated shutdowns and business stoppages. The manufacturing leaders also pointed to the importance of liquidity in allowing businesses to stabilize, take advantage of opportunities and make investments that position them to emerge as stronger companies on the other side of the pandemic.
The Network, they said, has an important role to play in supporting a resilient manufacturing sector in the Midwest and the nation overall. In addition to the MEP Centers’ usual support and programming, the Network has been a trusted information source and sounding board regarding safety protocols and protective equipment needed in response to the virus. They encouraged the Network to play a more active role in expanding the talent pool of workers and mentioned the need for technical skills. However, they also emphasized another manufacturing skill set that was of equal importance — “soft” skills. Productive shop-floor associates must be able to communicate, make decisions, and help build and maintain relationships company-wide as well as within work teams. Developing shop-floor leaders is a looming challenge, especially as current leaders near retirement. The panelists also advocated a greater role for the Network as the connective tissue between technological innovation coming out of NIST labs and manufacturers hungry for new products, processes and applications.
Wisconsin’s state motto is “Forward.” That’s exactly where these manufacturers intend to go, and the MEP National Network is proud to be helping them on that journey.
The MEP National Network is here to help U.S. manufacturers through these unprecedented times. We’re here to continue our mission to strengthen and empower U.S. manufacturers and our mission is now more important than ever. Connect with your local MEP Center, WMEP Manufacturing Solutions, to learn how you can succeed in a changing world.