Manufacturing execs weigh in on future of industry
Business Alliance hosts annual event

By CHRIS BUCHER - Freeman Staff

Jan. 28, 2017


From left: KHS USA, Inc. President Mike Brancato; Feiss Rotaform, LLC CEO David Gazzo; Gearbox Express CEO/Founding Partner Bruce Neumiller; W.M. Sprinkman Corp. President Brian Sprinkman; and Midwest Engineered Systems, Inc. President Scott Woida speak on a panel at the Waukesha County Business Alliance’s “Manufacturing Voices” on Friday in Brookfield.

BROOKFIELD — The growing gap in the labor force, emerging uses of technology and the effects felt by potential regulation and immigration changes by the new administration were just a few of the topics discussed at the annual “Manufacturing Voices” event organized by the Waukesha County Business Alliance at the Sheraton Milwaukee/ Brookfield Hotel on Friday.

Among the biggest issues discussed by the five-executive panel was a gap in workers entering the manufacturing field. Currently, about 70 million manufacturing workers are nearing retirement age, and it’s estimated that just 40 million workers will be entering the field. That leaves an alarming gap of about 30 million workers in the industry nationwide.

“This started 20 years ago or more. We’ve got to let what we’re doing today and all the great things we’re speaking to take effect,” Brian Sprinkman, W.M. Sprinkman Corp. president, said. “When I look 10 years out I think this gap, this skilled trade issue, it’s not something we can fix in a year. It’s going to take a while and I think we’re doing the right things to get there.”

W.M. Sprinkman, which moved from Franksville to 404 Pilot Court in Waukesha late last year, produces processing equipment and systems to companies in the dairy, food, beverage, brewing and personal care industries. The company faces many similar issues as those represented by the other four panelists, and the labor gap in U.S. manufacturing continues to be magnified by outside competition from foreign countries that don’t have many of the regulations that are placed on businesses domestically, KHS USA, Inc. President Mike Brancato said.

Brancato added that the outside forces continue to be a detriment for his company in particular, which is an international manufacturer of filling and packaging equipment for the beverage, food and non-food industries. Its U.S. headquarters are at 880 Bahcall Court in Waukesha.

“China is really trying to grow up in the manufacturing sector, adding the intelligence so they can be where we are right now,” he said. “They can beat us any day on labor costs ... the problem that we run into is when they copy a product and then they sell it at significantly reduced costs because they didn’t have the engineering fee.”

Regulatory hurdles

In addition to the competition abroad, regulations from the federal government have played a role in shaping how businesses operate in the industry, despite executives’ wishes. That’s proved to be a big problem for Gearbox Express CEO Bruce Neumiller, who said his Mukwonago-based wind turbine gearbox manufacturing company at 155 W. Dewey Drive requires changes to be made in order for it to run at an even higher, more effective level.

“The single biggest thing we have that would help us is a wholesale change to the employment laws,” Neumiller said. “The code around exempt versus nonexempt (workers) was written in the 1920s and labor has greatly changed since then.

“As a business owner, I cannot have an all-salaried workforce; that’s what I want to do, but I can’t because the government is preventing me from doing so because of the laws that are on the books from the ’20s. That would greatly help us if we could get some relief there.”

Felss Rotaform, LLC CEO David Gazzo offered a different perspective on the immigration issues not only facing our country, but also the manufacturing companies within the country. Gazzo, an immigrant himself, said that before he was an executive, he faced a harsh reality of working in the U.S. He listed altering immigration policies as the top item on his list of things that need to be changed in regard to Feiss Rota, at 5160 Emmer Drive in New Berlin. The company specializes in cold forming steel tubes to produce high-quality automotive parts.

“The immigration system is broken,” Gazzo said. “I went through it personally. It took me 10 years to gain residency in this state and in those 10 years, I could only work for one company. So I was mostly like a slave for that company because if I lost my job, I would have to leave the country with my family.

“If you want bring talent from overseas or from Mexico, or anywhere, it’s extremely difficult. The process is cumbersome; there is no guarantees.”