This year’s State of Manufacturing® (SOM) survey, conducted during the second year of the COVID-era economy, reveals some of the most fascinating information that we’ve found compared to the 12 previous versions of our annual poll – especially when viewed in the context of the accompanying focus groups.

Our annual SOM research always includes between 12 and 18 focus groups, composed of manufacturing executives from around the state. The hard data collected by Rob Autry’s survey research company Meeting Street Insights tells us what manufacturers are thinking. The focus groups tell us why.

We learned the value of focus groups during our very first SOM project, which we conducted in 2009, when manufacturers were uniformly absorbing the magnitude of the Great Recession. No company escaped its grip. The poll data told us they were surprised and shaken, but most were confident about the long-term prospects of their companies.

The narrative of the focus groups provided a fascinating backstory to their reaction. Only a few participants had a woe-is- me attitude about the economic upheaval. The large majority cooly described how they would use the recession’s “downtime” to retool, rebuild and refocus their companies so they could capture even more market share when the economy inevitably rebounded.

This year, the focus groups confirmed that the many COVID-era factors – not all triggered directly by the COVID pandemic – are affecting all manufacturers differently. At the extremes, some look for ways to stay afloat while others struggle to keep pace with record-setting sales. But they are all responding with remarkable resilience and resolve, and this was a theme of the focus groups. They are ready to take on challenges, whether that is to stay in business in the face of the cruelly unpredictable supply chain, or to keep up with rising production pressures despite having fewer and fewer employees. They are just doing it. Another takeaway was that they are busy! COVID-era manufacturers no longer enjoy the luxury of thinking that execution is the sole obstacle to achieving the goals of their five-year plan. These days, they wake up every morning knowing they’ll have to play managerial whack-a-mole with supply chain disruptions, unpredictable price increases, and unimaginable HR issues, all while managing the expectations of their customers. (The good news, they say, is that most of their customers are facing the same problems.)

So, I’m not surprised when poll data tells us, on one hand, that manufacturers intend to combat the worker shortage by improving productivity, and then, on the other hand, manufacturers admit they are taking less time to engage in productivity programs. They’re too busy!

This also might explain why only 14% of manufacturers worry about cybersecurity. Our focus group probes about manufacturers’ vulnerability to hacking or data breaches would mostly result in silence … until one or two would disclose their own experiences. You could almost see the lightbulbs illuminate over the heads of other executives as they listened to these cautionary tales. I personally feel cybersecurity is a sleeper issue that will be with us years after we’ve shed the impact of COVID. It feels like when the shortage of available workers started to creep into focus group conversations in 2010 – way before the issue took on the market changing dominance it currently occupies. Time, and next year’s State of Manufacturing, will tell.

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

Return to Winter 2021 magazine