By Mark Schmit, Partnerships Manager, NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP)
Polaris MEP is the Rhode Island Center for the MEP National NetworkTM, which is here to help U.S. manufacturers through these unprecedented times. Our mission is to strengthen and empower U.S. manufacturers.
Two subjects that came up that I wasn’t expecting (but probably should have been) in a conversation with manufacturing executives were daycare and entrepreneurship.
While their other observations hit upon topics you would expect to come up during a pandemic, such as concern for the health of their workers, the need for enhanced safety measures, the communication challenges that arise when administrative staff work remotely, and an intent focus on cash management, the executives’ most impassioned concerns were about daycare and entrepreneurship, which they cited as key to reinvigorating the U.S. economy and sparking future growth.
These points were made during a Sept. 11, 2020, virtual conversation among executives of small and medium-sized manufacturing operations located in the Northeast. Over the course of 11 listening sessions, we at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP) heard from 50 manufacturers across the country with the goal of capturing their perspectives and experiences over the past few months.
The focus of the conversations was on learning how manufacturers are handling the near-term jolt from the pandemic and preparing for success in the long-term.
The Pandemic Made Hard Choices Harder
Employers know that even under “normal” circumstances, working and parenting can be a difficult juggling act. This pandemic has only made that act harder to maintain, forcing hard choices upon many parents.
- Do they leave the workforce to take care of their homebound children who are attending school virtually?
- Do they cut back on hours?
- Do they rely on family, family friends or older siblings so they can continue collecting a paycheck?
- What about eldercare?
- These are the questions workers have been asking themselves and their bosses most frequently.
“Every family that needs daycare is really struggling with how they can go back to work,” said the CEO of a New Hampshire manufacturing company, “and I don’t think we’ll get the economy where it belongs until daycare is fixed.”
In Rhode Island, Polaris MEP works with the Department of Labor to incorporate support for families into funding for recruiting and upskilling programs. For example, students in the Level 100 Manufacturing Essentials and Level 200 Manufacturing Developmental courses can be reimbursed for childcare costs. One manufacturer leveraged a Back to Work RI grant that reimburses companies for the first eight weeks of wages for a new hire to help their newest employee pay for childcare.
Relieving the burden on working families and getting the economy moving again is only the beginning, however. Manufacturers also have some new ideas for doing business during and post-pandemic.
International Disruptions To Accelerate US Industrial Entrepreneurship?
A manufacturer from upstate New York envisioned an entrepreneurial ecosystem of regional centers of innovation and excellence with a growing number of smaller, technology-driven companies ushering in a new era of manufacturing. “I think the industrial marketplace is an incredible next frontier for entrepreneurs,” they said.
Helping to usher in this new era have been the disruptions rippling through global supply chains. Two participants said they had experienced no supply chain disruption because they sourced everything from U.S. suppliers, whether by choice or due to requirements for defense contracts. One that had moved to high-mix, low-volume products after more commoditized activities moved overseas said its customers have a desire to purchase U.S.-made goods — provided they are cost-competitive.
A fourth executive said that his company is trying to capitalize on the pandemic-induced shock to global supply chains to bring business back onshore. Saying reshoring was rapidly occurring this year, he suggested a role for the vast MEP National NetworkTM to showcase the capacity of small manufacturing companies like his and help connect them to customers in need. Polaris MEP Project Manager Phil Ward is working on a reshoring project to do just that —
Recounting a particular consternation they encountered as COVID-19 was ravaging the Northeast during the early weeks of the U.S. outbreak, the manufacturing executives on the panel said the struggle to source personal protective equipment showed the importance of American manufacturing capacity and a robust supply chain.
To that end, these leaders are gearing up to move forward on planned capital expenditures that were put off immediately after the COVID-19 outbreak. They are investing in equipment, additional space and their workers to be ready to seize the moment.
“I think every single supply chain will be different on December 1, 2020 than it was on January 1, 2020” one participant predicted. “Inside that is an awful lot of opportunity.”
Some of the panel had a vision about industrial entrepreneurship, and it was more than someone buying an existing machine shop and trying to reinvigorate it. Their idea included mixing digital operations technologies with skilled machinists to build a flexible set of products.
They did not mention lean manufacturing but did think about cross-training and digitally integrated regional supply chains. One manufacturer stated, “That’s got to be a mission of our federal government, in organizations like the MEP National Network, to push for entrepreneurship at scale across our country in the industrial marketplace.”
The implied challenge to the Network is to build out that vision with its clients that are on the cutting edge of the next industrial revolution. The panel was not asking for a technology roadmap; they were suggesting a game plan to build competitive small and medium-sized industrial companies.
Help Polaris MEP craft the game plan for Rhode Island’s manufacturers. Reach out to Center Director Kathie Mahoney at [email protected] to share your thoughts on industrial entrepreneurship that can make our state’s manufacturing sector more resilient and robust.