The 2021 version of our State of Manufacturing® (SOM) survey may uncover unprecedented insights into the levels of murky perplexity with the on-again, off-again COVID economy that many — not all — manufacturers are currently trying to navigate.

This year’s survey will again be conducted by Rob Autry, founder of Meeting Street Insights. One of America’s top pollsters, Rob’s company has conducted all 12 previous versions of the SOM.

As we look back at our first survey, taken during the Great Recession, we found that the sudden and unexpected collapse of the U.S. economy affected manufacturers with the same indiscriminate intensity, no matter size or sector. Our most fascinating findings involved not whether they were affected but how they responded.

The COVID economy in 2020 and 2021 — and by this I mean the combination of the pandemic and the related responses by the government — hit manufacturers from diverse angles and with varying intensities. Some companies, not many, were devastated; others prospered. Some were just able to tread water amidst economic and political uncertainties. Will there be a COVID legacy? If so, what will it look like, and will it matter?

And what are some lingering issues?

Employees. COVID certainly did nothing to ease our ongoing workforce shortages. But did it start to change the relationship between workers and their employees? Will a less loyal workforce always be on the prowl for better deals? And how are manufacturers competing to recruit new workers and, just as important, keep the ones they have? Will technical schools play an increasingly important role in these relationships?

Productivity. Faced with fading employee prospects, will employers double down on improving the efficiencies in their companies’ output? Will robotics and AI play a heightened role? Do companies expect to increase their capital investments?

Profitability. Will companies with static or slipping revenues be able to use increased productivity to preserve the same levels of profitability?

Zoom. Have Zoom calls become a way of life? More specifically, will companies respond to current research that says their customers actually prefer computer-based sales calls to in-person visits? (For more insights on this, see the cover story by Steve Haarstad on p. 24.)

Cybersecurity. The surprise finding of last year’s research was the vulnerability of our digitally connected companies. Will that continue? Has it taken on new or different forms? How have manufacturers decided to respond?

I have a particular interest in whether manufacturers will share their experiences with the same candor they exhibited in last year’s Zoom sessions. Critics of computer-based meetings argue that the impersonal nature of talking to your computer screen tends to suppress open and forthright conversations. Those people didn’t attend last year’s focus groups. Feedback from those sessions reflected that even the participants themselves understood that they were part of something special. We’re returning this year with a 70-30 mix of Zoom/in-person sessions. Check our website for locations. All manufacturers are welcome to participate.

Featured story in the Fall 2021 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine.

Return to Fall 2021 magazine