Manufacturing survey highlights industry challenges

Waukesha County Technical College student Shaylen Goldammer works on a project at the school. She graduated from the industrial maintenance technician program and is currently in the automation systems technology program.


WAUKESHA — A new report from the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity has found manufacturers across the state somewhat optimistic about their future while still grappling with considerable challenges.

“The mood of manufacturers is mixed,” the report states. “On the one hand, most say the state’s business climate is heading in the right direction, projections for revenues, profitability, and capital expenditures are on the rise, and nearly nine out of ten are confident about the financial future of their company. On the other hand, compared to five years, more say the economy is getting worse and most say the state’s economy isn’t growing, and COVID-19 has clearly had a significant impact on the industry.”

Supply chain woes are evident in the survey results. A full 77% of companies ranked the availability and supply of materials, as well as the cost of materials, as very important to their success.

Automation is on manufacturing executives’ minds. Nearly two-thirds of them say automation is important to their company’s future; 32% say it’s very important while 29% say it’s somewhat important.

The survey results show over half of manufacturers, 56%, think Wisconsin’s economy is not growing, either staying mostly flat or slowing down. Pessimism is more common among smaller companies than larger ones.

Despite the general pessimism for the wider economy, companies are bright-eyed about their own financial prospects.

A robust 86% of companies reported feeling confident about their financial outlook.

About 83% of respondents reported finding the task of locating qualified workers difficult — 57% said it’s very difficult and 27% said it’s somewhat difficult.

A majority, 70%, of manufacturing companies are considering increasing wages and salaries.

Brookfield Mayor Steve Ponto said the report doesn’t surprise him.

“We’ve been hearing concerns about the supply chain, we’ve been hearing concerns about the employment market,” he said, adding one of the other emerging concerns is inflation spurred by federal government spending.

“The inflation genie is escaping the bottle,” Ponto said.

He said considering people feel strongly about vaccine mandates, companies might have a hard time imposing them in the current labor market when employees have “a lot of alternatives.” A large majority, 79%, of companies, said they are not considering requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19; about 9% are currently requiring it and 6% are considering it.

Regarding automation, Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said he expects companies will be looking to automate where they can. “I also think they’re taking a hard look at their supply chains and how far they reach,” he said.

Looking ahead, Reilly said companies beginning to favor shorter supply chains could lead to suppliers moving bases to Wisconsin or at least the Midwest, which would benefit the regional economy.

Waukesha County Business Alliance President and CEO Suzanne Kelley said “the good news is that a majority of manufacturers are experiencing strong demand for their products.

They just need more people for the many unfilled jobs that are constraining their growth. Meeting this challenge will take a multifaceted approach around attracting, developing and retaining talent — which continues to be a huge priority for the Alliance. Just last week, the Alliance cosigned a letter with 37 other chambers from around the state urging Gov. (Tony) Evers to launch a talent attraction campaign.”

One of the organizations seeking to produce indemand skilled workers is Waukesha County Technical College.

WCTC School of Applied Technologies Dean Mike Shiels said he hears from industry partners about considerations for automating processes, and his students would be the ones capable of operating the advanced machinery to make such manufacturing possible.

“Our students are getting exposed to the same type of robots they’d see in a verity of industries and the technology behind the automation is in a lot of our programs,” he said, adding that they’re training for “current jobs and the jobs of the future.”

To see more data from the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity, visit