As if unconvinced and seeking guidance from readers, each week now the national business press sort through the question of whether the U.S. is in the midst of a ‘manufacturing renaissance’. An article in last week’s Wall St. Journal, ‘Why US Manufacturing is Poised for a Comeback (Maybe)’, was a good example. Today, a column in the Detroit News was less equivocal. "For those who know what manufacturing is like today, there’s no doubt that we’re enjoying a bona fide renaissance," the author opined.
We're clearly intrigued by the possibility that manufacturing is ascending. But does the evident desire to build more stuff here, and the growing awareness of what was lost in the massive offshoring of U.S. manufacturing prowess, equate to a full on comeback?
As we’re always glad to help out other manufacturers (yes, newspaper and magazine publishers are manufacturers) the answer is, not yet.
A more apt description of what we’re experiencing is a manufacturing ‘awakening’. Business, economic development and government are waking up to the appeal of a resurgent manufacturing economy.
The benefits are tangible. Maker companies build wealth by returning dollars from product sales back the community. Jobs are relatively high paying. And it's a sector that drives innovation and the practical application of technology pouring out of higher-ed and industry incubators.
But until industry can fill thousands of positions that go unfilled due to a lack of qualified workers, or find workers at all, qualified or not, a ‘renaissance’ will remain a goal not reality. Manufacturers jammed a room at Mike Bristol’s innovative brewery in Colorado Springs last week to hear Tom Neppl, CEO at Springs Fabrication, explain why he’s leading a charge to form a new industry partnership in the region. “If I go down to the college and say I need a machinist, they're not going to listen. If 15 of us go down there, it's a different story,” Neppl said of industry’s need to align with higher education.
Jan Erickson, founder of Janska, a Colorado Springs-based apparel manufacturer, can’t find labor. “We need more sewers. Something has to be done,” she said at the event, referring specifically to immigration reform that would enable her to import more labor.
And we’re not close, really, to a point where youth value a manufacturing career. We’ve taught our best and brightest the opposite. Nor are we challenging enough undergraduates to aspire to build businesses that build stuff.
However slowly we’ve come around to the notion, there’s nevertheless widening consensus that our economy needs more maker companies. That the benefits are often inherently local. That successful industry clusters like natural food in Boulder, bioscience in Denver and cycling in Odgen are models that can be emulated with great success.
More lifestyle industry seems the low hanging fruit. We advertise to put skis on the hill, boots and wheels on the trail and tourists in the wineries of Mesa County. Promoting the region as a home for the light industry who would make our lifestyle tools and toys seems an easy and effective extension of our brand efforts. As I’ve written, Ogden’s the latest example of leveraging a lifestyle brand with industry efforts.
The industry clusters that result arc across the economy. They involve a breadth of service businesses - architects and designers to contemplate new maker spaces, builders to build them, tech companies to enable them, financiers to capitalize and professional service firms to support them. An entire economy engaged.
Challenges like workforce can be overcome. What was needed first was awareness of the possibilities.