Manufacturing jobs will continue to play an outsized role in the local and state economies, Upjohn Institute President Michael Horrigan said to open the Dec. 13 Upjohn Community Breakfast meeting in Kalamazoo. Manufacturing employs a greater share of workers in Michigan than the nation at large, and southwest Michigan’s share is greater still.
“Some manufacturing sectors have employment concentrations more than double the national average,” Horrigan said. That’s good news for southwest Michigan workers, as manufacturing pays better than other sectors. “The long-run challenge facing all sectors, including manufacturing, is the potential labor shortages that will accompany the declining size of the labor force as the baby boom generation retires,” he said.
The event focused on the future of manufacturing, with featured speakers Chad Moutray of the National Association of Manufacturers, Rob McFarlan of Pfizer, and Blake Moret of Rockwell Automation.
Manufacturers cite attracting a quality workforce as their top concern, said Moutray, chief economist at the National Association of Manufacturers. Part of that is convincing workers to enter the field.
“Perception is a large challenge for manufacturers,” Moutray said. “People don’t want to do it. We’ve worked to change that perception, to show how cool manufacturing is.”
Efforts to attract workers will get a boost from recent federal legislation, he said, noting that manufacturing construction spending increased dramatically following the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Those investments have caused businesses to turn their attention from offshoring jobs to reshoring them, Moutray said. “When companies are looking at global resilience, more are looking at the U.S. differently than they were.”
As modern manufacturing becomes more sophisticated, it relies increasingly on automation, said Moret, chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation. There’s resistance, however, until business executives become comfortable with swift advances in technology.
“The biggest challenge for the rapid adoption of the technology is the need to simplify,” Moret said. “Reducing that complexity is the fundamental issue.”
Local governments can also help manufacturers, Moret said in response to a question from Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson, by fostering low-crime neighborhoods and providing favorable economic conditions.
Pfizer’s McFarlan, senior manager of automation for the company’s Modular Aseptic Processing plant, focused on the importance of education and training programs in keeping the workforce nimble as processes change. “Look at how technology has evolved over the last 20 years,” he said. “It’s been phenomenal.
“We’ll continue to put in more technology,” McFarlan said. “The better the workforce can adapt to the technology coming in, the better off they’ll be.”