By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
“I think COVID-19 has convinced people we need to make things in the US again.”
Randy Wolken, MACNY’s president and CEO of Manufacturers Association of Central New York.
As with most industries, manufacturing was disrupted by the pandemic, with a few exceptions such as essential businesses.
But despite the “significant impact” of the pandemic on manufacturing, “recovery is underway,” said Randy Wolken, president and CEO of Manufacturers Association of Central New York (MACNY). “There’s unevenness. Some members are doing quite well and others are coming back more slowly.”
The pre-COVID initiatives to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. have been underscored by the pandemic’s disruption of the supply chain. Relying too much on offshore manufacturing has led to shortages in many goods, which Wolken said is causing people to rethink the supply chain.
“Re-shoring is becoming important,” he said. “I think COVID-19 has convinced people we need to make things in the US again.”
In addition to that movement in the industry, the aging workforce is retiring in large numbers, causing numerous openings. Wolken believes that older workers who are more prone to infection may be more reluctant to return to work while the pandemic continues.
He thinks that apprenticeships can help encourage more people to learn manufacturing skills, since they can earn while they learn and avoid educational debt.
Current times have also created opportunities for manufacturers.
“It’s a unique opportunity to hire talent now that unemployment is close to 12% compared to when it was 4%,” Wolken said.
That doesn’t always translate to plenty of workers, however. Wolken said that manufacturers seeking workers with skills in welding, soldering, electrical technology, assembly and machine operation still don’t have enough workers. Simply transplanting a worker from retail to these skilled positions can’t happen until the person receives training.
The pandemic has also somewhat shifted where manufacturing industry works. Many office workers transitioned to working at home because of the pandemic. To a lesser extent, Wolken said that is also true for manufacturing.
Essential businesses found ways to continue operating by adjusting to how the pandemic changed how they did business. Except for sectors like furniture and automotive, “most were open in some capacity so they learned how to navigate the pandemic,” Wolken said. “They learned how resilient they were and that they could be open successfully.”
Reopening in phases
For some manufacturers, the pandemic meant shifting their operations to essential goods — like hand sanitizer, medical equipment or protective gear — to become an essential manufacturer. In general, reopening in manufacturing depended upon the industry segment.
“A lot like our government had phases of reopening, we found that our manufacturers were going through this in stages,” said Cory Albrecht, who directs the Advanced Institute for Manufacturing at Mohawk Valley Community College, which serves Oneida, Fulton, Herkimer, Montgomery, Otsego and Schoharie counties.
Those who made non-essential goods and were unable to pivot had to close for a time. In Upstate New York, many manufacturers were deemed essential, which helps the overall economy continue operating.
But Albrecht said that the pandemic negatively affected many small manufacturers performing contractual work for larger businesses, such as metal fabricators making a few automotive parts or electronic specialties.
Not all manufacturers are operating at their pre-March employment levels. Meeting state and federal guidelines for reopening has challenged some employers as they must keep employees distanced and wearing masks.
“Companies are trying to satisfy their customers during a very disruptive time,” Albrecht said. “That takes a lot of strong leadership. It takes a lot of planning and sound execution.”
He views a COVID-19 vaccine as the means of getting manufacturing back on track.
Despite the difficulties that the pandemic has brought to the industry, Albrecht sees a few bright spots, such as the increased public perception of manufacturing as important. COVID has also brought state grant money to manufacturers producing goods like masks.
Albrecht also hopes that the pandemic will help more people consider manufacturing as a viable career option and encourage support organization to continue to aid in the industry’s growth.
Mohawk Valley Community College is part of the New York State Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). The organization helps small and mid-sized manufacturers in increasing their business through modernization. The school is one of 11 statewide that offers an Advanced Institute for Manufacturing (AIM). The purpose of AIM is to offer small to mid-sized manufacturers with training and consulting services.
Another MEP member is Central New York Technology Development Organization (CNYTDO), which serves Cayuga, Cortland, Madison, Onondaga, and Oswego counties.
“As these companies look to rebound and grow and continue down the path of being successful manufacturers in New York, they have access to these 11 nonprofit partnership centers,” Albrecht said. “Together, the New York State MEP network connects with thousands of manufacturers across the state. I couldn’t see a better time than now for these small to midsized manufacturers to reach out to us. We have programs and solutions. We can help them get on the path to recovery and being innovative an growing their businesses in New York.”