By Tom Still

MADISON – Most Americans probably think the worst is over for U.S. manufacturing jobs, which declined 1.6 percent per year in the decade ending in 2014. More than 2.1 million jobs disappeared during that time.

Even with the Great Recession in the rearview mirror, that perception is only in part correct. The coming years won’t be easy for companies that fail to pay attention to trends reshaping the nation’s manufacturing sector.

The number of manufacturing jobs will decline, on average, 0.7 percent per year between now and 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s a predicted drop of 814,000 jobs for the 10 years ending in 2024, from roughly 12.2 million jobs to 11.4 million.

In a tortured political year, the obvious answer would be to blame someone else – Mexico, China, South Korea or Brazil, to name likely suspects. In truth, much of the fault still lies at home with companies that have failed to keep up with the global Joneses, Garcias and Wangs.

The manufacturing companies that survive in the years ahead will be those that:

  • Compete through innovation, product development and market expansion at home and abroad;
  • Reduce costs through a mix of systems, techniques and management tools;
  • Create a culture that attracts, retains and develops talent; and
  • Pursue certifications that set a company apart while fulfilling local, state, national and even international qualifications.

Competition, costs, culture and certifications make up the operating mantra for the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership and its oversight group, the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity. Both organizations work with manufacturers statewide, often putting together beginning-to-end plans that help companies compete in a changing world.

Whether the term of art is “the Internet of Things,” the “connected factory,” “machine-to-machine connections” or “Industry 4.0,” improvements in technology contribute heavily to manufacturing efficiency and productivity.

That trend has created the need for more skilled workers on the top of the food chain, while destroying some lower-skilled jobs on the other end.

The short-term pain has been noticeable, but the long-term gain promises to bring stability and higher wages to Wisconsin workers whose employers make the transition.

Automation technology is nothing new, but it has evolved to the point where managers can monitor and control devices from hundreds of miles away rather than just a few feet. Tools can range from tablets that troubleshoot problems remotely to smartphone apps that monitor production statistics to connected cameras.

By 2020, experts predict, there will be 30 billion devices connected with unique Internet addresses – most of which will be products. However, the tools of production, inventory, supply chain and logistics will also be connected.

Technology is only a part of the answer. Developing and manufacturing products that set companies apart is essential. So is expanding markets domestically and internationally, especially in a world where 95 percent of the people live outside the United States. The “ExporTech” program at WMEP has helped hundreds of Wisconsin companies grow abroad, even if they that believed they were too small to do so.

Corporate culture is increasingly part of the mix, especially at a time when the workforce is aging nationally and in Wisconsin. The “Millennial Generation” is more likely to be attracted and retained by a winning culture.

Certifications and compliance programs might be viewed by some employers as too costly or too much hassle, but they can provide a competitive edge for companies engaged in food, feed, energy, cleantech, medical products, automotive and aerospace, to cite a few examples. They also help companies win grants and awards that speed innovation.

“Our state understands how complicated the modern industrial world has become and is putting together cutting-edge approaches to keep Wisconsin the top manufacturing state in the country,” said Buckley Brinkman, chief executive officer for the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity.

Wisconsin is a state with a long manufacturing tradition and one of the nation’s highest shares of manufacturing jobs. Adhering to the 4 Cs of competition, costs, culture and certifications may help it remain so.