Manufacturing has long held an important role in the success and identity of many states across the U.S., serving as a vital piece to the nation’s economy over the last two hundred years. However, with recent shifts in the industrial landscape, certain states have begun to separate themselves from the pack.

Wisconsin stands as one of such, with a manufacturing sector characterized by a diverse set of industries including aerospace, bioscience, and water technology, and supported by a workforce of over 470,000 individuals. “Manufacturing is a vital engine of our state’s economy and always has been, as it’s responsible for 11 percent of our state’s GDP—a figure that jumps up to 21 percent if you include the many service and support industries that surround it here in Wisconsin,” says Lee Swindall, Vice President of Business and Industry the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia recently predicted the Badger State to achieve more growth in manufacturing over the next six months than any other state in the Midwest—including long-standing industrial powerhouses like Michigan and Indiana. It’s a big statement, but one that Wisconsin has been building up towards for quite some time.

Swindall says that in the midst of the economic downturn back in 2011 they underwent an economic future study to provide an analysis of industry trends across their state as a way of identifying the main “driver industries” that they could invest in going forward to better support their state’s manufacturing foundation. “From the study we identified 42 of these driver industries and looked at them from both an individual and aggregate standpoint to see which sectors were really powering the state’s economic success,” he says, adding, “And from the 42 we found 13 ‘priority’ industries whose extremely strong performance gave us the confidence to project and invest in future growth for Wisconsin.”

In addition to this targeted growth, the state has also rolled out a number of programs over the last few years to foster collaboration between public and private agencies to drive a much more efficient solution towards combatting the impending manufacturing workforce shortages and skills gap issues waiting to plague not only Wisconsin, but the rest of the United States as well. “The workforce issue is a problem shared by all manufacturers across the country, but we have been proactive in our efforts in finding a long term solution to it.”

One example is the WEDC’s direct investment made to the Waukesha County Technical School in order to create a dual enrollment plan, allowing high school students to be dual enrolled in a technical school at the time as well. “These students graduate with a high degree of skill readiness pertaining to advanced manufacturing, and the program itself has been a massive success so far, with an over 90 percent graduation rate.”

Swindall says they’re also supporting industry specific apprenticeship programs, and have worked with high schools, technical schools, community colleges, and universities to rework curriculums to better suit emerging manufacturing needs. “One instance of this was shown in the Milwaukee Area Technical College, who after conducting extensive consulting from the WEDC and other agencies, reworked their curriculum and introduced a completely new food technology education to support the high density of food and beverage manufacturers operating in the area.”

Not all of these programs are centered on skill development, as the WEDC and its many partners have worked hard to also bring innovative solutions to help grow the overall business of new and established manufacturers across the state as well.

For example, let’s take a look at Gamber Johnson, a leading manufacturer of vehicle computer and laptop mount components based out of Stevens Point who, traditionally, had very little focus on exporting any of its products out of the U.S. “There was a program called Export Tech, a unique initiative sponsored by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership that supports companies’ export strategy development that we helped them implement, which led to a number of new markets for them and massive growth in overall revenue—650 percent to be exact,” says Swindall, who adds, “Our collaboration was key for them because exporting can be very complex and a bit daunting at first, but they followed every step and it led to a whole new identity for the company.”

The Export Tech program has influenced the success of many other Wisconsin manufacturers as well, including Pewaukee-based TLX Technologies, a designer and producer of custom solenoids and solenoid valves, who have since taken their expert-quality products to the export market as well, growing their overall revenues by $500,000 already. “By assisting our manufacturers in both expanding their businesses and developing their future workforces, we’re helping build a stronger present and future for out state,” he says, adding, “Because here in Wisconsin we don’t manufacturing as a legacy industry, but rather as a core component of our ability to continue to experience economic prosperity.”

Wisconsin’s powerful position in manufacturing has been a long time coming, and the state’s aggressive yet strategic approach to attracting and growing business doesn’t look to slow down anytime soon. “Our manufacturing sector actually grew through the recession and in 2015, we find it leaner, smarter, and more productive than ever,” he says, concluding, “It’s a uniquely powerful engine to the state’s economy and we’re excited to see it grow further as Wisconsin continues its progression into one of our nation’s major hubs for business.”

Lee Swindall is the vice president of Business & Industry Development for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), Wisconsin’s lead economic development organization.

About the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation
As Wisconsin’s lead economic development agency, with more than 600 regional and local partners, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) fosters the cooperation necessary to support job creation. Its collaborative, customer-centric approach aligns resources, partners and industries to accelerate long-term, sustainable growth. As a public-private entity formed to drive business development in Wisconsin, they are uniquely positioned to deploy funds where they are most needed to maximize economic opportunity. Their structure allows them to be adaptable so that we can respond quickly to changing economic conditions. See more at: http://inwisconsin.com/inside-wedc/#sthash.gl2JzDMk.dpuf.


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