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Is there a ‘manufacturing renaissance’ in your region?

Dodge Ultimate Factory Customized Viper

Dodge workers celebrate the Ultimate Factory Customized Viper. Photo: General Motors

The sluggish recovery – if you can call it that – in the U.S. jobs and residential real estate markets has a tendency to overshadow bright spots elsewhere.

Case in point – manufacturing, which is enjoying a bit of a modest uptick.  And with some ‘old economy’ companies and sectors still serving as bellwethers of the country’s economic health, now might be a good time to take a look at production, employment and other angles of the industrial scene in your region.

The Federal Reserve reported in its G.17 report in April – the Industrial Production and Capacity Utilization report – an overall uptick and gains in most categories (food being one of the exceptions.)  The index reflects activity as a percentage of 2007 levels, which is a good measure of how sectors are progressing back to pre-recession levels.  Equipment parts, chemicals, paper goods and other components showed gains; you can use the report as a baseline for questioning local companies in those lines of business about how they compare.

John Deere on the iPad

John Deere released its first iPad app, Mower Match with details about tractors and mowers.Photo: John Deere

As this Bloomberg Businessweek brief notes, the manufacturing sector gained in April at the best pace since 2004, while this report, “Manufacturing booms as Deere exemplifies productivity surge,” goes into greater detail about how traditional industrial and manufacturing companies are rebounding amid what one analyst calls a “manufacturing renaissance.”  And demand isn’t the only factor; attention to efficiency and cost-cutting has made survivors competitive.  You can parse this report and use it as a template for a similar round-up of manufacturing firms in your region.  Don’t forget about suppliers as well as the big OEMs (original equipment manufacturers).  And ask regional and local lenders if they’re doling out more cash to companies for expansion, equipment purchases and other capital investment.

One local manufacturer told me a week ago that the skilled-labor shortage is hurting some of his competitors; he said that using downtime to cross-train workers at his small fabricating plant enabled the firm to emerge nimble and ready to go when orders picked up, while rivals scrambled for talent.

With 14 million people languishing unemployed in the U.S., it may be difficult for many in your audience to believe that good-paying jobs are going begging.  Is it really the case in your market?  Try to get some nitty-gritty details from area employers – what positions are vacant for lack of the right skilled worker,  what qualifications are sought, what are pay and benefit levels?  A display of a dozen or so of your area’s hardest-to-fill manufacturing jobs would be snapped up by readers.

This recent editorial from the Rochester Business Journal, “Skilled-labor shortage is a hurdle for manufacturers,” cites a lot of good sources and data that you might research (or find local counterparts to) for your story.  It was written by the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association, International, a national trade group that offers a lot of interesting information on its web site, including a number of resources pertaining to the skilled-labor shortage.   Unions, other trade groups and your state’s workforce commission also could help flesh out this story.

Another neat resource:  Manufacturers News, a Chicago-based publisher of business directories, offers state-by-state summaries of the number of manufacturing companies, jobs and other statistics pertaining to the industry.  Not all states are represented yet in the roster of 2011 press releases; they’ll be posted as the company’s staff completes them.  But quite a few already are up and it’s worth a look even at older data to give some context to your reporting.

About the Author

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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