Manufacturing good for Lewistown

By: 
TOM SPIKA

This coming week, several companies in Central Montana will join manufacturers throughout the nation in celebrating and recognizing the value of manufacturing. While Lewistown historically was not thought of as a manufacturing zone, our community has seen a significant increase in that sector over the past 20 years, with at least 10 companies currently employing five or more employees, and several with 20 or more. These firms are manufacturing goods bound for national and global markets. I have been a strong advocate of growing our manufacturing sector here, as I feel this industry, above agriculture, tourism, mining, or retail, holds the greatest promise for growing our community and fostering a vibrant, sustainable economy.
Manufacturing is viewed as an indicator of economic health. Growth in manufacturing results in growth in other jobs; as many as 2.5 jobs for every one in manufacturing. It is estimated that $1.72 is generated in other Montana industries for each dollar in new manufacturing earnings. Economic benefits to Lewistown are obvious, with millions of dollars funneled into our community through manufacturing wages alone. Local businesses supply their goods and services to these companies, and tens of thousands of dollars are contributed to community benefits and fund drives. Employment opportunities help elevate the standard of living for our families, and attract new families to relocate to our community.
With wages averaging 19 percent higher than other Montana industries, and benefits such as paid health insurance, profit sharing, and savings plans, manufacturing offers a very attractive career path for those entering the workforce. In addition, manufacturing jobs are plentiful in virtually every city in Montana and thousands of areas nationally, and non-financial benefits such as high job satisfaction add to the appeal. Yet we still struggle with the perception of blue collar jobs being dirty, hard, dangerous, and generally undesirable, normally filled by those workers lacking the ability to secure more “skilled” or challenging careers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Our nation is facing a crisis in the availability of skilled workers to fill these desirable jobs. While several recent years have seen the nation’s unemployment rate climb, millions of blue collar jobs were going unfilled due to the lack of basic required skills. The accelerating rate of skilled baby boomers retiring is certainly compounding the problem. What brings this to the crisis level is the fact that fewer and fewer high school students are planning on pursuing a career in manufacturing. Most student’s limited knowledge of what manufacturing careers have to offer plays a big role, as do negative perceptions of the student’s influencers. Studies show that only 37 percent of parents would encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career, and only 30 percent believe their local school systems encourage these career choices.
Efforts are underway to address this shortfall. This week I took part in the governor’s Workforce Symposium held in Butte. Bringing together the state’s Departments of Labor, Commerce, and Education, along with our two-year colleges, high schools, career technical education centers, and manufacturers, new, innovative ways of bringing the skills training opportunities to the workforce are being laid out. These include apprenticeships tailored to specific industries such as welding, machining, and electo-mechanical; internships, remote classroom instruction, and others. Colleges are recognizing the demand for skills competence and attainment of industry recognized credentials above college degrees, and are now seeking non-traditional methods of bringing that education to the student.
Similarly, our local schools are recognizing the need to bring a quality education to not only those bound for a four-year university, but to those who will enter the workforce immediately upon graduation. They understand that to succeed at educating these, we must provide the opportunity for the student to learn those skills that will ensure employability and ultimately a good chance of success in life.
I encourage parents to take their kids of all ages to tour some of our area manufactures this Wednesday and Thursday. Our area schools have responded very enthusiastically, and plan on bringing over 500 students to the various companies to see and experience manufacturing. Some plants will provide opportunities for the students of all ages to experience the pride in manufacturing something they can take home with them, and all will show that manufacturing plants may not be quite what we expect. And don’t forget to wish your favorite blue collar friend a happy Manufacturing Day.

Tom Spika is the senior designer and CEO of Spika Design and Manufacturing.

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