Made in Michigan

Michigan and manufacturing go hand in hand. While the 20th century was defined by the state’s prowess in the automotive industry, Michigan in the 21st century also is a manufact…

Michigan and manufacturing go hand in hand. While the 20th century was defined by the state’s prowess in the automotive industry, Michigan in the 21st century also is a manufacturing leader in defense, medical devices, cybersecurity, agribusiness and more.

According to the Michigan Economic Development Corp., Michigan has the highest concentration of engineers in the nation and ranks among the top 10 for its number of workers in the skilled trades. Still, the industry is on the cusp of a massive worker shortage. With opportunities continuing to grow, local leaders are aiming to promote Michigan’s manufacturers, recruit new talent and dispel the myths of the industry.

In the Lansing area, one of the biggest advocates of manufacturing is Lansing’s former mayor, Virg Bernero. After serving as mayor for 12 years, Bernero became executive director of the Capital Area Manufacturing Council (CAMC) last summer. He said his years in office gave him a unique perspective on manufacturing’s importance on a local, state and global level.

“Economic development was my top priority after public safety,” Bernero said. “You can’t be involved in economic development in Lansing and not run into manufacturers. Being concerned about jobs and the economy led me to understand who’s here, who’s creating the jobs and who’s got the potential to create jobs. It led me to, as mayor, learn about manufacturing.”

Getting involved with CAMC was a natural fit for Bernero and his former chief of staff, Randy Hannan, when the council’s longtime executive director left to work for the state. Bernero Hannan, their consulting firm, is under contract with CAMC to provide association management services.

“Our experience in advocating for manufacturing was well-known and well-honed in fighting for the survival of the auto industry in Washington,” Bernero said. “My role now is to be one of the regional champions for advancement in manufacturing and to highlight the accomplishments of our members.”

CAMC is an executive-level association that brings area manufacturing executives and human resources professionals together to advance the industry as a whole. The “local alliance of leaders, game-changers, and innovators” represents members in Clinton, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston and Shiawassee counties.

“We provide networking opportunities where people can get together and compare notes, which they love to do,” Bernero said. “Of course, there’s competition, but really in the capital area, it’s a very collaborative group where they share and learn from each other. We host meetings and facility tours that highlight innovations and best practices in manufacturing.”

CAMC has close to 40 members representing every aspect of manufacturing, from traditional tool-and-die shops and steel processors to manufacturers such as Spartan Motors, Niowave and Emergent Biodefense Operations.

“Everything from traditional manufacturing to more high-tech and cutting-edge,” Bernero said, though he added that even the traditional is becoming more and more high-tech over time.

“The only thing constant is change, in manufacturing especially,” Bernero said. As mayor of Lansing during the Great Recession, Bernero aims to continue to be aware of the political environment in his new role, making sure manufacturers aren’t blindsided by any trends in the industry.

“You can’t afford to just keep your head down and do good work,” he said. “We work with the Michigan Manufacturers Association (MMA), where they do more of the political side, but we are in constant touch. We’re not going to be caught by surprise.”

Mike Johnston, vice president of government affairs for the MMA, has been with the association for almost 20 years. In his role, Johnston covers the MMA’s legislative activities and is in charge of its talent development initiatives.

“We’re the organization that represents manufacturers in terms of advocacy in Lansing,” Johnston said. “We lobby for manufacturers. We represent the largest sector of the Michigan economy, with the industry employing 632,600 people in this state.”

The MMA represents 1,700 companies across Michigan, including such iconic companies as General Motors, Ford Motor Co., Dow Chemical Co. and Kellogg’s. But Johnston said about 85% of MMA’s members have 100 employees or fewer.

“Manufacturing really is a compilation of a bunch of smaller companies,” he said.

For the CAMC and the MMA, recruiting and retaining talent is the No. 1 priority, especially with a wave of retirements on the horizon.

“The biggest issue and what we hear about from our members and across the field is the issue of talent,” Bernero said. “We’re facing huge numbers of retirements for people in the skilled trades. People in manufacturing tend to be aging out. I think that’s one of the things that led to the creation of CAMC. They could see that in 15 or so years, we were going to have a talent crisis. Now, it’s about that time.”

Bernero said the issue is a double-edged sword: it means massive opportunity for today’s young people, but it could also mean a real shortage for industries. In order to attract upcoming generations, the CAMC works to engage its partners in education and workforce development to strengthen the talent pipeline in the Lansing region. In October 2018, the CAMC and local partners joined together with schools and the manufacturing community to celebrate National Manufacturing Day, with nearly 1,000 K-12 students getting a hands-on look at industries. Similarly, the MMA has a partnership with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation, working with manufacturers to create customized curriculum for high schools.

One key initiative for the MMA is lobbying for changes to educational policy.

“High school can’t abandon the largest sector of the economy in terms of the skill sets needed to make us competitive,” Johnston said. “We’re trying to bend educational policy in the legislature to create more flexibility in the curriculum.

“For years, it has been designed to drive people to four-year degrees,” he continued. “We want the K-12 system to be able to integrate career tech into their normal everyday curriculum so that more people have access to the jobs that are actually available.”

Local resources such as MI Bright Future, Lansing Promise and LCC’s Center for Manufacturing Excellence are available to assist students along these career paths.

In addition to introducing students to opportunities in manufacturing, it has also become important to educate parents and influencers about the industry. “For years, the message was that you needed to go to a traditional four-year college, and you didn’t want to be working in a factory like your father or grandfather,” Bernero said. “A lot of negative myths were perpetrated, and we need to begin to walk those back.”

Johnston agreed that manufacturing has been affected by these negative stereotypes.

“There’s this perception in terms of jobs that it’s dark, dirty and dangerous,” Johnston explained. “But the reality for manufacturing is it’s much more high-tech and very clean and bright. There’s a lot less physical labor going on because computers and robots are doing a lot of the manual work.”

Still, Bernero said he’s inspired and encouraged by upcoming young talent in the capital area, particularly in the field of robotics.

“We’re seeing an explosion with these robotics teams,” he explained. “We’ve had Mason and Stockbridge teams invited to compete on an international scale at Cobo Hall. It was thrilling to see the excitement of these young people. They’re learning and advancing their skills in a competitive environment where they’re not even thinking of all of the skills that they’re using.”

The CAMC has continued to build relationships with robotics teams.

“These are our future manufacturers and entrepreneurs,” Bernero said.

Organizations like CAMC and MMA must continue their work with local governments, schools, and business community to retain this bright, new talent. By equipping them with knowledge of opportunities and the skills they need to do the job


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