CompanyWeek began reporting on regional makers and manufacturers last September. We’ve profiled 100 companies since then - writing about their products, leadership, business strategy, challenges, needs, and more.
What’s been learned, and importantly, has the hype of CompanyWeek been warranted? Does the market need maker-economy media?
It’s clear the factors driving a manufacturing surge are real and Rocky Mountain makers are benefitting. As Brian Burney, CEO of Oliver Manufacturing in told me, “it’s a good time to be a manufacturer.”
Colorado’s maker community is booming, in high-profile categories like technology, software and media, craft beer, distilling, natural foods, and aerospace. Metrics and anecdotes bear this out. Catalysts for offshoring -- among them cheap labor and lower operating costs -- are also giving way to equally compelling reasons to reshore jobs and build more stuff here here, in the U.S.
Economic interests supporting business also favor maker jobs. The build wealth, as the adage goes. They return dollars to the region from products sales around the world. There’s also a discernable, positive cultural impact. Communities home to companies that make stuff seem inherently more stable, more cycle-resistant. And they demonstrably enhance middle-class prosperity. They pay more.
But will all this translate into a so-called manufacturing renaissance?
By some measures manufacturing continues to lag relative to other sectors in the economy. There's nothing meteoric about job growth in the sector. Macro-industrial output is sluggish. In relative terms, manufacturing is still in recovery mode.
Industry, conversely, points to an acute workforce need, and fully a third of the 100 growth companies we profiled struggle to find qualified workers, a finding underscored by state-gathered data that indicates over 15,000 manufacturing jobs went unfilled last year for want of qualified candidates. And in potential high-growth sectors like apparel and consumer-goods manufacturing, domestic labor remains overpriced relative to what’s available offshore.
Moreover, if manufacturers are to replace offshore suppliers or producers with local business partners, they need to locate them. It may not sound like much, but it’s a significant barrier to expansion of the sector. If manufacturers were effective self-promoters, they wouldn’t be manufacturers.
It’s unclear whether public-private partnerships designed to improve workforce readiness are getting traction. We’ll know a lot more soon. The coalition of industry, higher-education and government brought together last year by House Bill 1165, known as “career pathway legislation”, is beginning to report on outcomes from the five regional ‘summits’ convened to date. Jo O’Brien, an ‘industry pathway leader’ with the Colorado Community College System, briefed me recently on initial feedback from participants. (We’ll have much more on the outcomes of 1165-related processes in following weeks). The upshot is positive, in no small part because those who can make a difference are (finally) sitting around the same table.
When industry and higher-ed align, and a new generation of manufacturing employees begins to stream into the economy, can the manufacturing economy produce jobs at a higher rate?
In addition to workforce, growth may pivot on our ability to support entrepreneurs. Despite a generally positive spin here, in Colorado, about our collective exploits in birthing new companies, a recent study by the Brookings Institute suggests we’re struggling to keep them in business. From 1978 to 2011, the number of companies less than a year old in Colorado, as a percent of the total, dropped 51%, near the bottom of national rankings. Or as the Washington Post put it, “U.S. businesses are being destroyed faster than they’re being created”.
The findings track roughly with the steep drop in U.S. manufacturing jobs, and with financing woes related to the recession. Money's needed to keep the small business in business.
What does all this mean for CompanyWeek? For one, storytelling has never been more important, if workforce and a more connected business community are keys to sustainability. Changing the perception of manufacturing is best done by reporting on those doing it; and media, at it’s best, connects people and companies to facilitate new business partnerships including those involving money.
Would this happen without a manufacturing-centric media voice?
In a hyper-local way, yes. But if broad outreach is what's needed, and clearly the maker-economy will benefit from a thousand new business relationships, then CompanyWeek will play the important role of regional community-building. And compliment, not compete, with other storytellers.
We’ll revisit the proposition after the next 100. Stay tuned.