Oct 31, 2012
Emily McMackin
Emily McMackin
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Invigorating Manufacturing: Partnerships Are Key Drawing Cards for Communities

Plastics manufacturing plant

The trend of reshoring manufacturing back to the U.S. is opening up exciting opportunities for cities like Athens, Ga., which was recently chosen as the site of Caterpillar’s new $2.4 million production plant it relocated from Japan. But as manufacturing becomes more high-tech and global, communities that hope to attract this kind of investment — or even just retain the manufacturing they already have —must be intentional about everything from incentives to workforce.

In manufacturing right now, “transition is the key word,” Laith Wardi, president of Erie, Pa.-based ExecutivePulse, Inc., told economic developers during a session on invigorating manufacturing at the recent International Economic Development Council Conference. “Companies are driven by cost, but that isn’t the only concern — it’s also about the quality of the talent.”

Though manufacturing does not have the same employment levels of the past, workforce is driving more location and expansion decisions, Wardi said. And companies aren’t just paying attention to the available labor force, but they are also looking at the network of resources within a community’s ecosystem, or as Wardi puts it, the potential for “talented people at talented companies to link up with talented networks.”

“The changes driving today’s economy are happening in virtual spaces,” Wardi said. “We’re past the age where companies simply compete against each other; it’s now networks competing against other networks.”

“If you want to drive expansion, think about how your networks are growing globally,” he encouraged economic developers. “What collaborative systems are you part of?”

Invigorating manufacturing in a community starts with building relationships and open dialogue with existing manufacturers, said Pablo Diaz, executive director of the Grenada County Economic Development District in Grenada, Miss.

Through quarterly roundtable meetings and individual visits, Diaz meets regularly with manufacturers in his community to hear their stories so he can better understand their challenges and point them to resources within the community to help them solve their issues.

“Trust is important … showing them the value you can provide to them through local and state resources — and how that is relevant to their bottom line,” said Diaz, who has been known to provide manufacturers in his town with “resource briefings” and spreadsheets outlining the incentives they are eligible for.

His advice to economic developers? “Be the link,” Diaz said.

Partnerships played a key role in revitalizing manufacturing in Wichita, KS, after a downturn in the aviation industry led to the loss of thousands of area jobs. In the months following, the city and county partnered with Wichita Area Technical College to build  the National Center for Aviation Training to help displaced workers gain the high-tech skills they needed to find new jobs in the industry.

“It showed that our community was ready to play,” said David Bossemeyer, managing director of business development for the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

Not only has NCAT put employees back to work, but the school making a name for itself among aviation companies that view it as an asset for investing in Wichita. Recently, NCAT was chosen to work with other top schools in the industry to develop an aviation curriculum for the future, Bossemeyer noted.

Wichita leaders have also been helping small aviation suppliers the region diversify into other industries, such as medical device and wind turbine manufacturing. Retaining existing industry is important, Bossemeyer said, but he also encouraged economic developers to “focus on what is emerging next and what is coming up for your community.”

Are partnerships integral to manufacturing in your region? Should they be? Please share your thoughts below.

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