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Opportunities abound in modern manufacturing

Major advancements happening in the industry in Northeast Wisconsin

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October 18, 2022

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – Manufacturing has long been considered a building block of society and is foundational to the history of not only the state but Northeast Wisconsin in particular.

The face of local manufacturing has changed dramatically since its origins in the 1860s, though perceptions haven’t necessarily followed.

And in spite of continued evolution and revolution within the industry, Ann Franz, executive director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, said the stereotype of manufacturing as dirty, dark and dangerous remains.

“The being-dirty-and-grimy-at-the-end-of-the-day kind of role is more the exception than the rule now in manufacturing,” she said.?

Franz said nor is it a dead-end type of job opportunity that doesn’t provide a livable wage.

“Manufacturing as an industry provides 23% of jobs in Northeast Wisconsin,” she said. “On average, these jobs pay, in wages and benefits, better than any other private sector. And thanks to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Industry 4.0, companies are becoming even more technology-focused and less back-breaking focused.”

In fact, Franz said manufacturing can be a well-paying, challenging and satisfying career, one rooted in safety and filled with opportunities for growth and advancement.

Comfort, safety and a welcoming environment 
Franz said one of the things a focus group of people featured in the Alliance’s “All-Stars” magazine revealed was their ability to feel comfortable in the workplace.

“They said they like to be their authentic self,” she said. “That was an interesting finding, one I had never heard before, and it really resonated.”

// peek inside the Bay Tek Entertainment production process. Submitted Photo

At both Bay-Tek Entertainment and MCL Industries, part of The Village Companies in Pulaski, the work environment on their respective production floors, Brittany Dieterich, talent acquisition specialist, said is rooted in comfort.

Dieterich said personal protection equipment, such as safety glasses and steel-toe shoes are required, but the rest of the dress code is casual.

“Employees on the floor can even wear shorts, hats and hoodies without any strings or other dangly items,” she said. “The ability to share that benefit with (prospective employees) is a huge selling point.”

Dieterich said comfort extends to the brightness, cleanliness and temperature of a work environment as well.

Ron Buchinger, director of operations at CMD Corporation, said the Appleton company incorporated air conditioning into its east and west buildings about three years ago and is fastidious about keeping the shop area clean and organized.

Buchinger said about 80 of its 200 employees work on the production floor in some capacity.

“We have always worked hard to make things nice in the shop area,” he said. “I had a machinist start recently who was surprised with how clean we are. We expect that no matter what.”

Michael Brandt, chief executive officer at RC Mowers USA, said the Suamico-based manufacturer of remote-operated robotic slope mowers is taking its production environment to new heights by building a new facility.

Brandt said the facility, anticipated to be move-in ready in January, is not only four times bigger than the existing facility, but also takes employee experience into consideration.

“We had a lot of choices in how to build that, and we’re spending the extra money to air condition it and feature a lot of natural window lighting you don’t always see in factories,” he said. “It’s only fair that everybody has that, as well as a clean, comfortable and safe environment. A lot of those things go into being more satisfied at work, and with more satisfied workers comes higher productivity. It’s a two-way street.”

Technologies and automation make the job easier
Sachin Shivaram, chief executive officer at Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry (WAF), said even an inherently gritty environment like a foundry can create a safe and welcoming environment.

Shivaram said WAF – a 113-year-old foundry located in Manitowoc that produces aluminum and copper-based alloy castings for a wide variety of industries – has embraced technologies, such as a Dalmec arm robotic lifting device for heavy items and scissor lifts to lift items to a more comfortable height.

He said painting lines on the floor to designate walk areas, adding shadow doors for parts and incorporating LED lighting throughout the facility have gone a long way in providing a more welcoming environment.
// worker at Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry removing sand cores from a casting as it comes off of an automated molding line. J.T Photography LLC Photo

“We had a lot of work to do to bring our standard up to snuff, but our environment is getting more high-tech and is safer and brighter,” Shivaram said. “It makes a difference to our employees’ comfort while making a difference in the quality of work.”

Not far away, AriensCo, a global manufacturer of outdoor power equipment, is focused on enhancements as well in its three factories in Brillion.

John Schiermeister, senior director of operations at AriensCo said the company has made a significant investment in Plant 1 with enhancements finishing in 2021 – which includes painting all ceilings and walls white and installing LED lighting.?

“We wanted to impress people when they walked in and make them comfortable and want to come to work,” Schiermeister said. “When you walk into it, it’s almost a showpiece with how bright it is.”

Schiermeister said employees were engaged in determining how to reposition equipment to make it the most comfortable and ergonomically friendly setup.

He said the company also integrated automation to solve issues with heavy items or repetitive tasks – including the use of automated guided vehicles (AGVs).

“Once an operator finishes his part, he uses an iPad to call an AGV to the location which then grabs the basket and moves it to the next process and then brings their next job to them,” Schiermeister said. “Employees don’t have to push those heavy steel baskets. Now, variants of AGVs are used in all our facilities.”

A living wage
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis and Bureau of Labor Statistics, across all manufacturing employees, the average hourly earnings were $30.95 in August 2022, up from 3.7% from one year earlier.

Locally, Schiermeister said AriensCo has bumped up its wages for manufacturing roles three times since December 2020, with the latest increase put into effect in April 2022.

Others have made similar increases in an effort to secure and retain talent.

“We have adjusted our wages based on the tight labor market and to ensure we’re competitive,” Beth Vann, manager of market strategies at CMD Corporation, said. “You can start here making $55,000 to $60,000 your first year with little to no experience.”

At WAF, Shivaram said the union company has a starting wage of $23.75 per hour with an additional $1.25 per hour for second and third shifts – with all employees receiving a quarterly bonus as well of $1.50 per hour.

“So our effective wage is at least $25 per hour,” he said.

Brandt said wage is top of mind at RC Mowers as well, noting that having a great culture is important, but “you can’t feed your family with it.”

He said the company keeps tabs on the market quarterly and makes adjustments to ensure they remain competitive.

Training, education and advancement
Franz said studies performed by the NEW Manufacturing Alliance confirm the rapid expansion of Industry 4.0 technologies in Northeast Wisconsin manufacturers, as well as a resulting and pressing need for talent now and in coming years.

She said the resulting incorporation of more automation, robotics and “smart machines” makes for a less physically intensive environment for employees.  

A production leader at Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry inspects a casting before it is sent to the customer. J.T Photography LLC Photo

Franz said she sees the upscaling occurring, and the NEW Manufacturing Alliance has a hand in it – providing both a data analytics training program to 200 mid-level managers from local manufacturing companies, as well as hosting four cohorts of project management training.

She said these are key skill sets manufacturers need as they embrace more facets of Industry 4.0 and AI in their workplaces by “upskilling” their employees.

That said, Franz said there are a multitude of ways to pursue a manufacturing career, from starting after high school graduation or pursuing a one-, two- or four-year degree and then entering the field.?

“There are many onramps to viable opportunities in manufacturing,” she said.?

For those already in the industry, Franz said manufacturers overwhelmingly support skill development and advancement through further education.?

“Probably 90% or better of manufacturers offer tuition reimbursement for career progression, so a high school student who decides, ‘College isn’t for me’ can still pursue an apprenticeship or career progression,” he said.

Buchinger said he can attest to the opportunities to grow with a manufacturer.

Nearly 35 years into his career with CMD Corporation, he said he has advanced from his initial role as an electrical assembler, working his way up through different departments to become director of operations.?

Even on a day-to-day basis, Buchinger said there’s intent to vary employees’ responsibilities at CMD Corporation.

In contrast to spending a full shift on an assembly line connecting part A to B over and over, he said “we cross train in all areas so the work is diverse.”

“Our people are cross-trained in all areas, from our converting business to our natural gas division, and even within product segment,” he said. “They may build one thing today and something entirely different tomorrow.”

And Buchinger said there are opportunities to advance, aided by both internal and external training.

At CMD Corporation, he said three assemblers have pursued electrical training at Fox Valley Technical College so they could become service technicians.

“They’re now installing and troubleshooting our machinery all over the world,” he said. “We have lots of opportunities so that someone who comes in doesn’t have to settle for assembling machines for the rest of their life.”

Last year, Shivaram said WAF invested in training for two women with no previous engineering experience to join that department.

“What they both had was the desire and attitudes we wanted, and we taught them through on-the-job training, courses and one-on-ones with key people,” he said. “People want career learning to acquire new skills as they see that as a path to mobility, and we support that.

Shivaram said the company went further with the establishment of a new training center, curriculum and staff in September, thanks to a Wisconsin Fast Forward grant.

He said the center not only features real-life training exercises but also 4-to-1 employees-to-supervisor training on the actual equipment and access to translators needed during the two-week onboarding process.

“This also allows us to hire people with no manufacturing experience and properly teach them the skills needed, rather than only hiring people with previous manufacturing experience,” he said.

At RC Mowers, Brandt said the company is intentional about assessing employees’ skill sets, talents and aptitude and nurturing those – noting that when someone joins the company in a specific job and excels in it, they then move them to other areas not only to cross-train but to also determine growth opportunities.

“We like to match the job and the work to people’s strengths and their passions,” he said. “People have different desires and talents, and where possible, we try to match those.”

Brandt said it’s a matter of paying attention.

“Listening to (employee) desires and what they want to do and observing their aptitude,” he said.

Partners in manufacturing’s future
Buchinger is a member of the advisory board for Appleton Technical Academy (ATECH), which is housed at Appleton West High School and created in response to a need for workers for the growing number of advanced manufacturing positions in Northeast Wisconsin.

Among other things, he said CMD Corporation brings manufacturing to life for students.

“Through tours, they can relate what they’re learning in the classroom to real life,” he said.?

Buchinger said he serves on the advisory board, providing technical assistance and industry advice and helping instructors understand and learn about new equipment, for example.

He said it also builds upon the “earn and learn” opportunities CMD provides to students to learn about mechanical design, machine tooling, engineering, automation and more.

“At the end of the day, we want to provide a well-rounded experience that helps students make educated decisions about their career choices,” Vann said. “Not everybody knows what they want to be when they grow up. The more educated they are, the more apt they are to be happy and satisfied in the path they take.”

Further, Vann said youth apprenticeships and other learning opportunities provide students exposure to manufacturing companies’ opportunities across the board.

Over the next decade, it’s estimated that four million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed, and a little more than two million are expected to go unfulfilled if more people don’t pursue modern manufacturing careers.

“Manufacturing is more than production,” Vann said. “People can work in finance, marketing, management, engineering and other functional areas. Half our employee base is in areas other than production.”

Schiermeister said every one of AriensCo’s 1,200 to 1,300 employees have career paths outlining internal and external training requirements, skills to demonstrate and accomplishments to achieve.

“We create the path,” he said. “From there, you can advance in the organization as high as you want to go.”

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