Ehlers to provide some guidance to area manufacturers

Outgoing U.S. Congressman Vern Ehlers is scheduled to field questions tonight at the second annual gathering of the West Michigan Manufacturing Societies United, which wants to know what Washington plans to do for the small manufacturers, among other things.

“We want to know, what can we do? We don’t know how to make a difference” in Washington, said Bonnie Knopf, president of Intrepid Plastics in Grand Rapids and one of the organizers of the event at Grand Valley State University’s Eberhard Center in downtown Grand Rapids at 6 p.m.

WMMSU is a collaboration involving professional organizations including the American Society for Quality, American Welding Society, American Metals Society, Society of Manufacturing Engineers, Society of Automotive Engineers, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Society of Plastics Engineers and the Air & Waste Management Association. Other entities involved with the group are GVSU, The Right Place Inc., Grand Rapids Community College and Ferris State University.

The loss of manufacturing jobs in West Michigan is the key issue driving the group, according to its news release about tonight’s event, but it also mentions “an increase in negative press surrounding manufacturing.”

“The auto (industry) fiasco and all the union strikes” have been “giving manufacturing a bad name,” Knopf said.

She said some of the elected leaders in Michigan have spoken of non-manufacturing businesses such as Internet or movie production companies as the new sources of jobs here, which to Knopf, “seemed like they’re saying, ‘manufacturing has had its time. Now we’re moving in this direction.’”

“Manufacturing will never go away,” said Knopf.

“I’m a company that wants to grow,” she said, referring to Intrepid Plastics, a small injection molding company. “I’m not bartering and threatening to take my business out of state — it’s here. So what is there here for us?”

“It seems like there is a lot of lip service out there,” she added. “We want to know, how do we get the action? How do we get the response” from government?

Ehlers told the Business Journal that the first key piece of advice he will offer to small manufacturers is to make sure they are part of some national association that has lobbyists working on their behalf in Washington, and then make sure that lobbyist is “doing what they really want.”

“Second,” said Ehlers, “they should make sure they elect a good member of Congress — and they’re going to have a chance this year.”

Ehlers, a Republican who has represented Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House since 1993, announced this spring that he would retire this year. Five Republicans and three Democrats are running to represent the district, which includes Barry and Ionia counties and most of Kent County.

Now, said Ehlers, the small manufacturers have “a great chance to find out what (the candidates) think about manufacturing, and what ideas they have about how they can help manufacturers.”

He said the thing to do is question the candidates while they are still campaigning; if they don’t have an answer, it will force them to “get busy and figure it out, because the people aren’t going to elect him or her if they don’t know what they plan to do when they get here.

“If they do know, then you want to get them on the record, so after they are elected you can come visit them in the office and say, ‘Do you remember when we talked last year and you said you were going to do this and this? How’s that coming along?’”

Ehlers said it’s “a new opportunity” for all 3rd District constituents, particularly manufacturers, “to get to know their Congressman straight from the get go,” and to “educate their member of Congress about what’s important.”

“I had no idea when I ran for Congress that I would spend as much time on manufacturing issues as I have,” said Ehlers.

As for support that Washington offers small manufacturers, Ehlers pointed to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which is funded partly by the U.S. Department of Commerce and National Institute for Standards and Technology, plus the states, MEP members and regional organizations. The MEP operates similar to the Agricultural Extension Service, which supports farmers with the latest technological advice and research to make them more efficient and competitive. The Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center — West, housed at The Right Place in Grand Rapids, is one of 59 MEP centers across the nation that work to strengthen American manufacturing.

Ehlers said he has spent a lot of time in Congress “trying to strengthen the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program and get more money into it. It’s very worthwhile.

He said that as a scientist, he was always very impressed by the effectiveness of the Agricultural Extension Service — as well as the MEP — but was struck by the general lack of support in Congress for manufacturing assistance, compared to agricultural assistance.

“We put about $400 million a year from the federal government” into the Agricultural Extension Service, he said, and farmers represent only about 2 percent of the U.S. work force. On the other hand, he said, the manufacturing work force represents about 15 percent of the U.S. work force, and, he said, he’s had trouble getting Congress to allocate from $100 million to $120 million a year for the MEP program.

If there was a linear relationship to funding based on jobs, Ehlers said, “then we should be spending a lot more on the Manufacturing Extension Partnership than we do on the farming extension.”

It’s possible Ehlers will field some questions related to the banking industry, too, when he meets with the small manufacturers tonight. Knopf said that probably the biggest issue facing small manufacturing companies in West Michigan is the general scarcity of credit. Tight credit also slows down the larger manufacturing companies, which are supplied by many small ones.

“It’s just the unknown — the fear of the larger companies not releasing work,” said Knopf.  “It seems like we used to be able to plan monthly and yearly and now it’s down to weekly, and you don’t know where your orders are for the next week. So it’s just hard to plan. That’s why it’s hard to hire full-time people,” said Knopf.

Intrepid Plastics has sales of about $1 million a year, although that has fluctuated during the last few years. Orders seem to be stabilizing now, she said.

“Fortunately, we’re investor-financed instead of bank-financed, so that puts us in a really good position,” she said.

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