Manufacturing Metropolis

A few years back, as the Great Recession strangled the nation’s economy and forced automotive giants to bankruptcy court, manufacturing in mid-Michigan and throughout the state hit a low point unrivaled since the start of the Industrial Age. Jobs and revenues were lost.

Today, that’s history. Manufacturing has rebounded to add jobs, products, stability and cash flow to the region and state. Problems have flipped; where once there were too many people for too few jobs, now there’s a growing demand for more skilled workers to fill a company’s needs.

That’s a good problem to have.

“Manufacturing is thriving,” said Jim Bunn, business services liaison with Capital Area Michigan Works! “I have more jobs to fill than I’ve ever had, and I have more of a need for manufacturing skills than I’ve ever had. I had a manufacturer tell me that they need 60 welders by June 1. New companies coming to Lansing is what’s really spurred it on.”

In 2017 there were 20,300 manufacturing jobs within the Greater Lansing area, up from a low of 15,000 in the depths of the Great Recession eight years earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Today’s numbers are well below the 32,000-plus manufacturing jobs reported by the BLS in 1990, but a healthy rebound nonetheless.

“Ten years ago, we were at rock bottom of the recession. We were constantly meeting with shrinking employers and laid off employees. And now, all those people have found other jobs, have returned to their old jobs or are retired. It’s put real pressure on hiring manufacturers to compete for talent,” said Edythe Hatter-Williams, CEO of Capital Area Michigan Works!

GM remains the giant of the region’s manufacturers with an estimated 5,800 jobs at its facilities in Lansing and Delta Township. Those plants have been boosted by the addition of two new SUV product lines – the Chevrolet Traverse and the Buick Enclave – that plant executive director Marcos Purty at the Delta location calls a “pretty stable backbone(s) of the portfolio” at GM.

“When I look over last year compared to this year, our facility is still running pretty full to supply the market. The demand is great,” said Purty.

While GM is still dominant here, the region is far from being one company’s domain. “In 2008, when we bottomed out, manufacturing was dependent on GM. That’s not the case anymore,” Bunn said. “We have medical device manufacturers, defense contractors, aeronautical, agribusiness. GM is still a critical component, but we’ve diversified.”

While local observers cited the growth of automation in their workplaces, many also thought tech wouldn’t replace jobs as much as it would shift employment to skilled trades.

“I can kind of compare that a little bit to what happened in the beginning of the 20th Century when we went away from a horse-driven economy to automotive,” said Mark Cosgrove, dean of the technical careers division at Lansing Community College (LCC), which hosts the Center for Manufacturing Excellence. “Certain jobs went away but other jobs were created, based on that change. And the same thing is happening here.”

Greg VanWagenen, director of communications and marketing for Manitou Pontoon Boats in Watertown Township, added that “no matter how automated everything gets, there’s still going to be maintenance needed on the machines, or someone to oversee what’s going on … now, there may be overall fewer jobs in manufacturing, but they’d be more skilled and better compensated because of what their duties would entail.” 

 

The difference, Cosgrove said, is, “It’s much more difficult to walk out of high school and jump into a position that’s a lifelong career that’s going to pay well and allow you to support a family and buy a car and a house and so on.”

“When I was a kid, and I grew up in the Lansing area, a lot of my high school buddies, their fondest dream was to get, at that time, into Oldsmobile or into Fisher Body, because they saw that as punching their ticket. They were going to have a great job and it paid well,” Cosgrove said. “Even that’s not as easy as it used to be, and it will become more and more difficult as things become more automated.”

GM’s Purty said: “I consider every job in our facility to be skilled. Whether it’s building the vehicle in general assembly or the electrician repairing or maintaining the automation equipment, it’s a significant skill that allows (GM) to put out a product of a vehicle at the end of the line … there are different types of skills that are needed, but there will always be technical skills – going into a trade, going to a technical certificate program – all of those things will be good attributes for future workers.”

So, training between high school and before a manufacturing job is critical. Mid-Michigan fortunately has solid resources.

“I think Michigan has a very strong public education system at the university level,” said Jim Lammers, president of Dart Container Corp. in Mason, the region’s second-largest manufacturing employer with 1,800 workers. “We’ve got a legacy in this state of a lot of manufacturing interest and capability.”

Those education partners include LCC, Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute) in Flint and Michigan State University, among others, said Mike Lonsway, Dart’s executive vice president for engineering and machinery and tooling manufacturing.

“The proximity of Michigan State is obviously a big benefit,” Lonsway said. “We hire lots of engineers, scientists and technicians, and Michigan State is actually one of the best packaging engineering programs in the country and, being a packaging company, we have the need for packaging engineers, so that’s been a big help. We also partner with (the) university in certain capabilities and developments. That is also beneficial for our organization from a technical side.”

Manitou’s VanWagenen said a mix of many companies looking for skilled workers like welders plus a lack of qualified workers means “it takes a lot longer, it seems like, to find people, qualified candidates for what we’re looking for.”

Cosgrove added: “We have a hard time keeping our welding students in the program, simply because manufacturers come in and snatch them. When they get so far into the program that the manufacturer thinks that they’ve got enough skills, they come in and offer them a job. We’re here trying to talk them into staying until they finish their next certificate or their degree, but it’s hard to argue with somebody who’s offering them good money to do something else, to actually go to work.”

Training, though, isn’t just an employee’s prerequisite. To keep and empower good people, employers say they must offer their share of training, too.

“You have to have good technology, you have to have capital to invest and deploy, but if you don’t have good people, you’re not going to succeed,” Dart’s Lammers said. “It’s a mix of needing people who have certain skill sets and education, but also it’s inevitable I think in almost any organization that in addition to that, people are being developed, trained, and further educated within the organization itself in ways that are more specific and resonate to that industry and that company.”

Without talented and motivated workers, manufacturing in this – or any – region would struggle. Continued success will depend on growing those training opportunities and the pool of trained laborers. It will also be affected by how reactive and nimble local manufacturers are to faraway happenings that can impact business and the kind of skills laborers need.

“In the broader sense, some of the challenges and opportunities, it’s really just a lot to do with the global market today,” Dart’s Lonsway said. “It’s a very competitive market, so our ability and other Michigan manufacturers’ ability to innovate and bring solutions to the market as quick as possible is very important. To be agile, to adapt to the market conditions today, is another key characteristic that we all need to be focused on.”

Cosgrove said his school has an advisory committee that tries to get ahead of industry trends and proceed accordingly. CAMW’s Hatter-Williams thinks mid-Michigan is fertile ground for new manufacturers as well.

“We’ve rebounded well. We are positioned to continue to recruit additional manufacturing companies to our region,” Hatter-Williams said. “We have a support system in place with our workforce and economic development systems. At Capital Area Michigan Works!, we have an entire Business Services Team dedicated to helping these employers. We all work together to ensure we’re training people with the right skills and connecting with experienced candidates. 

“Our collaboration on a local and statewide basis will allow us to continue to grow and expand this industry for our region,” said Hatter-Williams. “Other communities don’t have that level of collaboration we have here, and all of that plays into having the relationships with businesses to get them the talent they need.”

Industry leaders are bullish on prospects for the region.

“The future of manufacturing is always promising, has been promising,” Purty said. “Whatever you do … you got to build ‘em.”

Mid-Michigan Manufacturers, Ranked By Employees

  1. General Motors: 5,800
  2. Dart Container: 1,800
  3. Peckham: 1,400
  4. Demmer Corp.: 1,110
  5. Spartan Motors: 730

Lansing Economic Area Partnership, Dart Container Corp.

 Greater Lansing Manufacturing Employment

2007: 21,500
2009: 15,000
2011: 17,100
2013: 17,900

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Omar Sofradzija

Omar Sofradzija

Omar Sofradzija is an adjunct journalism instructor at Michigan State University. Prior to that, he was a columnist and reporter at the Las Vegas (Nev.) Review-Journal, where he covered the development and launch of that city's Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) bus rapid transit system and the Las Vegas Monorail.

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