We created the State of Manufacturing® 11 years ago after observing how little credit the manufacturing industry got for its achievements. At best, manufacturers were primarily recognized as successful individuals who cared about their communities, but manufacturing as an industry languished in unflattering stereotypes. Manufacturing facilities were typecast as being populated with low-paying, strong-back employees who required little or no expertise. Their jobs were monotonous, sometimes unsafe, and extended little chance for advancement. And, to be candid, it seemed only a very few manufacturers expended much energy to dispelling those images. Many seemed content to quietly create widgets in relative anonymity.

Coalition Building. We conceived the State of Manufacturing to convene the manufacturing community. Politicos have learned how to harness the aggregate power of seemingly unrelated interest groups by showing them how well they can succeed by working with each other. We wanted to use the State of Manufacturing to demonstrate the dynamic benefits that can be directly achieved by diverse interests when working under the aegis of a community’s manufacturers. Flourishing manufacturers tend to share their prosperity. Communities benefit as their residents receive stable, high-paying, long-term manufacturing careers, with benefits. Suppliers and subcontractors can build entire businesses in serving the manufacturing supply chain. Bankers, accountants, and realtors can all use their relationships with manufacturers as the foundation of their businesses. And economic developers can exploit that stable financial base to attract other companies to their growing populations. We think the survey, focus groups, and ongoing publicity related to the State of Manufacturing helps underscore that all these groups enjoy a financial and cultural stake in ensuring the success of their manufacturers. Similarly, when the manufacturers have a challenge—e.g., the shortage of workers—they share in the benefits of solving that challenge.

Manufacturers. A rewarding byproduct of our State of Manufacturing process has been how participants treat focus group discussions with such respect and enthusiasm. Two factors stand out to me that I hadn’t anticipated when we started: First, we attract high-level participants who come prepared to share honest, candid insights and opinions about their industry. Any fears executives had over sharing information about their companies evaporated immediately. And second, participants seem to like coming back year after year. I would guess there are about two dozen executives who have attended a focus group in each of our 11 years. Because of this, at least a couple of the focus groups have reached such a high level of familiarity and functionality that our facilitator does not have to do more than prime the pump with a couple of questions, and then stay out of the way.

Educators. Manufacturers will still attribute their inability to attract a skilled workforce to K-12 educators who won’t (or can’t) think beyond their narrow focus that a four-year degree is the only path to a prosperous, satisfying career. But many of them will confess that this barrier is slowly eroding. We have not used the State of Manufacturing data to communicate to educators, but we think it has stimulated conversations among manufacturers, educators, community leaders and parents about how manufacturing is loaded with opportunities.

Policymakers. It’s great how the State of Manufacturing has created and nurtured overwhelmingly successful relationships between manufacturers and their local elected officials. Legislators and others frequently tell us they always appreciated their manufacturing constituents but weren’t always sure why. We’ve used the State of Manufacturing to initiate and lead more than 300 legislative tours of manufacturing companies. Elected officials are almost always impressed, sometimes awestruck, by how most manufacturing facilities have evolved into sophisticated, efficient operations whose products are frequently sold on world markets.

What’s more, the survey data has opened the eyes of legislators through our broad public distribution of the data and through the public testimony of Bob Kill, our president and CEO. Bob has even testified before Congress about the results of our survey, which shows firsthand how taxes, regulations, energy policy and employment laws can directly constrain manufacturers from growing profitably.

I’m not suggesting in any way that the State of Manufacturing has rescued the image of manufacturers or inspired their leaders to become aggressive advocates of their own cause. That has been a natural development accomplished by forward-thinking manufacturers on their own. But we do think the State of Manufacturing helps by providing a venue where the manufacturing community can annually gather around credible, serious data that in part celebrates the accomplishments of their industry and identifies challenges that it must overcome.

Featured story in the Summer 2019 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine. 

Return to Summer 2019 magazine