Industry’s big shots must go small to rehabilitate manufacturing’s brand

By Bart Taylor | Apr 24, 2017

How important is it to rehabilitate manufacturing's brand?

Last fall, I wrote that manufacturing had a media-fueled PR problem, but that grassroots growth in super-charged industries like food and beverage would overtake the dated, national narrative. Manufacturing is cool again, especially in its innovative early-and-middle stage companies, and for a sector searching for talent, an updated brand means everything.

Apparently that message isn't getting much traction.

Last week, it was Snap-on Chairman and CEO Nick Pinchuk bemoaning the state of the industry. "Manufacturing has a PR problem," Pinchuk said. "People are looking at manufacturing jobs as a consolation prize. Skilled workers, which is the essential to winning the global competition to jobs, are in scarce supply." For many, a shortage of skilled labor, not manufacturing's new vanguard, continues to be the national story.

There's consensus on this point up and down the manufacturing value chain. That a dated, negative perception of manufacturing continues to hamstring the sector.

But the power and promise of emerging companies and industries has suddenly become lost in a confusing political mess that's undermining manufacturing just as its rising stars are grabbing hold of the conversation. As we reported earlier this month, President Trump has zeroed-out the $150 million allocation for the Department of Commerce's NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership network in the "skinny budget" he presented to Congress.

There's precedent here. In 2004, President Bush proposed slashing MEP's budget by 63 percent, from from $106 million to $39.5 million. It changed the tone of the manufacturing dialogue, to say the least:

"We're dumfounded -- nobody can believe what happened," says Mike Wojcicki, president of the Modernization Forum, the association representing (MEP) manufacturing centers. "It is a major blow to the program. There is no getting around that."

Try on a 100 percent cut for size. But cooler heads should prevail. For one, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), Washington's powerful industry voice, has voiced support for MEP, something they wouldn't do in 2004.

Second, there's an even higher level of bipartisan support for MEP than there was in 2004, when passion ran high from regions steeped in manufacturing. Support now spans the nation, across even more industries.

Still, the fight may again expose a divide within manufacturing's circle. Smaller companies who benefit from the operational focus of the MEP network are often outside the domain of member-based associations. Critics of the 2004 budget cut noted its potentially devastating impact on small manufacturers.

The message being sent by the Bush administration, the Commerce Department, which requested a 90 percent budget cut for MEP earlier this year, and Congress "is they don't care about small manufacturers -- they care about large manufacturers who contribute lots of money to PACs -- that's what it comes down to," says Wojcicki. "We're going to make sure the Congress and the White House hear about it as soon as possible and as loudly as possible."

Small and middle-market manufacturers are the new face of sector. The outcome of the fight for MEP funding may determine who influences manufacturing's brand in the future -- small or big.

Industry's top-shelf stakeholders would do well to go small -- and support the people and ideas that promise to change the perception of manufacturing. Funding MEP, a network tuned in to the middle market, can be a jumping-off point.

Until then, its beleaguered brand will continue to hold it back.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at