Hiring, innovation remain key manufacturing priorities

Leaders anticipate similar industry outlook compared to 2022.
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A powder coating worker at DeWys Manufacturing. Courtesy DeWys Manufacturing

According to local leaders, the state of manufacturing in 2023 likely will reflect similar obstacles and opportunities as 2022.

To be sure, industry professionals have weathered a handful of challenges within the past two years, including supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and now inflation.

“Normally, in a normal business cycle, you might have one or two of those fairly substantive issues that you address as a business leader, but in this era of time, we’re sort of facing all of them at once,” said Brian Kraus, chief supply chain officer at Amway.

Labor shortages and the need to fill workforce gaps remains one of the most critical challenges for employers across all industries, and several local manufacturing experts anticipate this will continue into 2023.

To combat this within the manufacturing industry, several leaders in the region already have been implementing ways to attract and retain employees.

Zeeland-based Gentex recently announced plans to develop an on-site day care and preschool to provide employees with convenient and cost-effective access to care for their children. The Gentex Discovery Preschool: An ODC Network Early Childcare Center will consist of a 43,000-square-foot building with a capacity target of 250 children per shift.

“The low availability and high cost of child care has long been a barrier to employment, and we want to remove that obstacle so more people can experience the benefits of being a member of team Gentex,” said Steve Downing, president and CEO of Gentex.

Gentex has spent recent years strategically working to fill gaps in its workforce and removing various obstacles to employment has remained a priority, according to leadership.

Christina Keller, president and CEO of local plastic manufacturer Cascade Engineering, shared her company’s strategy during a panel discussion hosted by the Economic Club of Grand Rapids in October. Keller said she and her team were able to relocate 200 employees from a Texas-based temp staffing agency and bring them to Cascade Engineering, paying for transportation and housing to fill the company’s workforce gaps.

At the same time, Keller said the company keeps working to retain and strengthen all its employees during these uncertain times.

“From a talent perspective, we’ve worked for a long time on DEI, ESG and other types of support,” Keller said during the event. “People want to have a purpose-driven organization, and we have to think differently about resources and pools of talent that we can tap into if we want to continue to grow.”

For Jon DeWys, CEO of DeWys Manufacturing in Marne, investing in proper training and education has been a key solution for sustaining business. The company launched its own 12-week, on-the-job training program called DeWys University in 2012.

Earlier in 2022, the program received accreditation from Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC), enabling students to receive up to six college credits toward a degree at GRCC for completing the program.

“We’re one of the first manufacturers that actually have team members who are welding on the shop floor that can actually get six college credits through Grand Rapids Community College while working,” DeWys said. “We’re really doubling down on education and training people in different manufacturing processes and capabilities.”

DeWys also said he has been focused on helping prepare the next generation for working in the manufacturing industry through partnerships with local schools and other organizations.

Kraus, who sees the demand for qualified talent being a consistent issue over the next four or five years, said Amway plans to hire for 100 new manufacturing jobs in 2023 alone. At the same time, the company has started to explore options with automation — not to replace members of its workforce, but to shift menial tasks away from employees to free up capacity for higher-level tasks.

“The concept of automation is just taking the value-add out of human hands and into a robot or machine so that a human can do more higher-value tasks,” Kraus said. “The future of manufacturing is highly automated. It’s highly talented individuals using their brains more than their brawn, and automation and advancements in technology is a huge thing that will continue.”

Technology and innovation likely will remain key priorities for the state of manufacturing in 2023. The state of Michigan has been working in recent years to help manufacturers adapt to new innovations, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation in early December announced grant funding for 24 small manufacturers throughout the state to help support the adoption of Industry 4.0 technology.

The funds are part of the $3 million Industry 4.0 Technology Implementation Grant program, which has helped 95 companies to date.

“As Michigan continues to lead the world in advanced manufacturing, these Industry 4.0 grants will help Michigan manufacturers of all sizes adopt new and innovative technologies that will enable them to remain competitive well into the future,” said Quentin L. Messer Jr., CEO of MEDC and president and chair of the MSF Board. “By working with our partners in local communities around the state to equip risk-taking businessmen and businesswomen, Team Michigan is strengthening the advanced manufacturing and entrepreneurship sectors to create jobs and greater opportunities for future generations of Michiganders.”

In terms of economic factors, DeWys anticipates 2023 will be an inflection-point year as the industry perhaps can start to return to normal despite overall speculation about a recession.

While trying to maintain a realistic approach and outlook, he remains hopeful about the coming year.

“For a lot of other companies I’ve talked to, nobody is predicting a recession,” he said. “Nobody is predicting mass layoffs and things like that … I want to have a slightly pessimistic lens on so I don’t get caught up in the moment, but I want to be optimistic. I am optimistic.”

This story can be found in the Jan. 9 issue of the Grand Rapids Business Journal. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.