In our continuing series on Madison Leaders & Influencers, we chat with Buckley Brinkman, Executive Director & CEO of The Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity (WCMP), which collaborates with the UW Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center (MOC) and the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP) to help Wisconsin manufacturers grow their businesses and become more profitable.
Tell us how The Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity (WCMP) was formed and what it does today.
The WCMP was formed in 1996, operating as the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP). At the time, Wisconsin was one of the states with multiple Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) centers: the WMEP covered the southeast portion of the state and the UW-Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center (MOC) covered the northwest half. In 2015, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce, put our contract back up for bid. One of the conditions of the new contract was that there be one MEP center for the state.
The WCMP became the holder of the new NIST MEP cooperative agreement for Wisconsin, and we now facilitate collaboration between the MOC and the WMEP. It’s our job to align their services, programs, and activities to create and attract more opportunities for the state’s manufacturers. The WCMP handles all the contracting with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Commerce. We administer grant funding, coordinate advocacy and education efforts, and connect resources throughout the state.
One thing that’s a little unique to us is that we focus our efforts across five manufacturing industry clusters in Wisconsin: water; power generation and control; food and beverage; biotechnology; and aerospace. In cooperation with the state, we did a study to identify these strategic clusters, which were defined based on what was here and where Wisconsin has a competitive advantage. We support these clusters, help small and medium manufacturers grow and become more competitive, and expand Wisconsin’s influence in national manufacturing.
What’s one misconception people often have about manufacturing in Wisconsin?
One of the most widely held misconceptions is that most manufacturers are large. In fact, 99% of manufacturers in Wisconsin are small- to mid-size—and 80% employ 20 people or less. Fewer than 200 manufacturers in Wisconsin are what we consider large, defined as companies with 500 or more employees. The WCMP spends a good deal of time interfacing with those smaller manufacturers to help them locate and develop the resources they need to grow.
How do you describe the overall health of manufacturing in Wisconsin, and how is it changing?
It’s in a really strong position. There are a number of people in key roles around the state who understand how important manufacturing is to our economy. It’s very easy—especially in Madison—to talk about being an innovation center. But innovation is not limited to Madison—the numbers have never supported that. Manufacturing funds two-thirds of R&D in the country. Most scientists and engineers work in manufacturing.
Manufacturing today is not the same as the manufacturing environment of 20 years ago. A strong back and a good alarm clock no longer ensure success in manufacturing. The requirements for manufacturing in today’s environment are greater than just showing up and being able to read, write, and add. Most of those types of manufacturing jobs have been exported, and U.S. manufacturers can’t compete with these countries in products with higher labor content with lower skills.
Manufacturing in the U.S. today requires more training than a high school diploma. It doesn’t necessarily require a four-year degree, and manufacturing can be an exciting option for people entering the workforce as it allows you to keep your options open. Starting off in manufacturing is a great way to start a career: it requires minimal training but can take your career in many directions. Skills like marketing, sales, and technology can be developed within manufacturing but also translate to careers outside of manufacturing. The strong technical college system in Wisconsin—and now four-year programs—are starting to think about ways they can engage with manufacturing and help students get the skills they need in other ways than just a traditional classroom setting.
What do you see as the greatest challenge for Wisconsin manufacturers going forward?
One ongoing challenge is that it appears a large percentage of manufacturers are asleep at the switch in terms of observing the changes that are coming their way. The big change is the body gap that’s coming. We simply aren’t going to have enough people to fill all the positions necessary to continue to grow the industry. And if manufacturers try to use skills gap solutions to solve the body gap problem, they’ll be putting their companies in jeopardy. More manufacturers need to start informing themselves of key trends and how these trends will affect their businesses—because they will.
It’s a great time to be a manufacturer in Wisconsin, and to be a business in Wisconsin. People are thinking about new ways to do things. Working in the public sector, I see a lot more cooperation between organizations in the state, which makes me very hopeful.
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