Manufacturing today offers a new world of opportunity | Columnists

It’s National Manufacturing Month, and that makes October a great opportunity to take a fresh look at the industry’s role in our nation, our state and right here in Hopkins County. Its opportunities are real and growing, and they might be a good bit different than you imagine when you think about the industry.

For example, modern manufacturing is evolving into a more diverse sector, as much about creating things as producing them. The old perceptions of grimy plants, tedious manual tasks and dangerous machines are giving way as advanced technologies such as 3D printing, computer-aided design and robotics play a larger and larger role in bringing about our products.

“New jobs in modern manufacturing extend beyond shop floors and laboratories into offices, state-of-the-art tech centers and even your living room,” write the National Association of Manufacturers and Manufacturing Institute at their recruitment website, “Everything that is made needs smart thinkers and doers to invent, market, distribute and maintain revolutionary products.”

Locally, for example, Ahlstrom-Munksjö in recent months has spent more than $20 million expanding its Madisonville plant to add capacity and enhanced capabilities for producing more customized types of paper filtration products. State-of-the-art technology, along with a top-level quality control system, will deliver enhanced product consistency. New, unique capabilities will allow greater product customization and greater flexibility of product design.

Tyler Wilson is a production supervisor and one of the about 150 employees at the 215 Nebo Road facility. He started as a production worker not long after graduating from Hopkins County Central High School, moved into management about 10 years ago, continued his education at Madisonville Community College with Ahlstrom-Munksjö’s support and gradually has taken on more and more responsibility with the company.

“Back when I started here 17 years ago, everything was very hands on,” Tyler said. “Now everything here is computerized. You type in a setting, and you’re good to go. It speeds up upgrades, it increases productivity and it really helps us improve safety. We recently had a family day here at the plant, and my family was just amazed at getting to see what we’re able to do here now.”

The truth is that, while decline of U.S. manufacturing is an often-told story, manufacturers in this country are investing in innovation. By itself, manufacturing in the United States would rank as one of the biggest economies worldwide. In 2014, with $2.1 trillion in value added, U.S. manufacturing would’ve ranked as the world’s ninth-largest gross domestic product, per the National Association of Manufacturers, citing statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and International Monetary Fund.

In Hopkins County last year, manufacturing contributed more to the GDP than any other industry sector — $282,403,000 — according to a Sept. 24, 2018, Chmura Economics & Analytics report. Among the products that manufacturers in Hopkins County create are aircraft engines, appliance components, blades and vanes, books, bucket elevators, concrete block, conveyors, cross ties, drilling bits, explosives, filter paper, firewood, grade lumber, hydraulic cylinder parts, industrial equipment, hoppers, jack boards, lunch meats, mine supplies and structures, newspapers, offset printing materials, packaged cement products, pins and bushing, plastic packaging, railroad ties, resin, steel fabrication, tables and chairs, towers, truck flooring and other automotive components and turbines.

Manufacturing is the third-largest industry sector in Hopkins County in terms of number of workers (behind retail trade and health care/social assistance) and average wages per worker (behind mining/quarrying/oil-and-gas extraction and utilities), again, per the September Chmura Economics & Analytics study. Through the 12 months ending June 2018, Hopkins County’s 2,002 employees in the manufacturing industry averaged $60,649 in annual wages.

These local numbers are all in keeping with the statewide story. Kentucky’s 250,000 manufacturing employees across 4,500 facilities turned out $29.2 billion in Kentucky-made exports in 2017, according to the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers.

“Kentucky’s manufacturing industry is growing strong and its products are in high demand,” writes the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (or, “KY FAME”), a partnership of regional manufacturers offering education and training programs. “But industry leaders all voice the same concern; they cannot find the skilled workforce they need.”

For sure, Kentucky is not an anomaly in this regard. Nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs are expected to be needed in the United States over the next decade, and more than half figure to go unfilled because of a skills gap.

One potentially rich source of that high-quality workforce that manufacturers require is combat veterans. That is one of the reasons why, through activities such as “Soldier Day,” planned for the first quarter of 2019, Hopkins County is working to recruit new veterans from nearby Fort Campbell.

Madisonville Community College also is playing a crucial role in strengthening the pipeline of skilled manufacturing workers that Hopkins County will need. MCC has been recognized as one of the flagships among the Kentucky Community and Technical College System in terms of aligning program curricula to communities’ business needs.

The number of available jobs in Hopkins County today is at a 15-year-record level. The 2017-18 fiscal year saw nearly $100 million of new business investment, and more is in the formational stage and on its way. That means even more good, high-paying jobs are coming to our community. Modern manufacturing will account for many of the very best of them.

Ray Hagerman is president of the Madisonville-Hopkins County Economic Development Corporation.

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