'It's not dumb, dirty and dangerous'
Local leaders discuss changing face of manufacturing industry

By DAVE FIDLIN - Special to the Freeman

Jan. 27, 2018

The Waukesha County Business Alliance hosted the panel discussion,
"Manufacturing Voices," at the Sheraton Hotel in Brookfield on Friday.
Photo courtesy of the Waukesha County Business Alliance

BROOKFIELD - Amid the backdrop of a well-publicized skilled labor shortage, local business leaders gathered for a symposium Friday to discuss the state of the manufacturing industry in Southeastern Wisconsin.

The Waukesha County Business Alliance hosted the panel discussion, “Manufacturing Voices,” at the Sheraton Hotel in Brookfield. Several hundred people attended the event at a time when all eyes are on the industry with Foxconn’s imminent arrival in Racine County.

The panelists included Jennifer Hansen, general manager and owner of New Berlin-based Trelleborg/Anderson Packaging; Dirk Maroske, president and CEO of Lake Mills-based Aztalan Engineering Inc.; Dave Morrow, president and CEO of North Prairie-based Zero Zone Inc.; and John O’Connell, president CFO and COO of Waukesha-based Geo-Synthetics LLC.

Roxanne Baumann, director of global engagement with the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, served as the moderator of the 75-minute discussion.

Throughout the discussion, Baumann and panelists frequently discussed efforts to recruit talent at a time when a labor shortage still exists. Although perceptions have chipped away in recent years, several speakers said there are still challenging headwinds at play.

“It’s not dumb, dirty and dangerous,” Baumann said in describing the jobs in need of filling across the industry today.

The notion students must attend a four-year university to achieve success in life is slowly being eroded as light has been shed on the family-supporting jobs available within manufacturing. Several panelists, however, pointed out the sector as a whole still faces challenging headwinds.

“For some kids, it’s the right thing to do,” Maroske said of a four-year university. “For others, it’s not. I think it might take another decade to change the perception.”

Programs such as STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math — are giving students a taste of some of the jobs that might be available, post-graduation. Many school districts across the region are adding STEM into their curriculum.

Hansen and other panelists said they try and provide job shadowing and mentorship opportunities to interested students, whenever possible.

“We believe in community and giving back... and helping people,” Hansen said of her company’s corporate philosophy.

During the discussion, panelists also were asked about automation within the industry and how artificial intelligence might impact job availability in the future.

While continued technological advances have, and will continue to, change the nature of how products are assembled, none of the panelists said they believed developments such as artificial intelligence would drastically alter how they do business in the immediate future.

At Geo-Synthetics, for instance, O’Connell said automation might not necessarily lead to cost-effective outcomes in the long run. Speaking to the manufacturing process within his business, O’Connell said, “It requires a significant amount of interaction.”

While some of the discussion was granular and technical, the overarching topic of finding talent emerged frequently throughout the discussion.

Although it calls Southeastern Wisconsin home, Morrow said Zero Zone is willing to work with skilled professionals — particularly engineers and regional sales managers — in other locales through telecommuting.

Hansen said referrals, community involvement and networking opportunities have helped in bringing skilled talent to her business at a time of robust growth.

“I think your ‘A’ employees will refer ‘A’ employees,” Hansen said. “When talent comes your way, take it.”