Year ends with promise, challenges for Utah manufacturing

By Bart Taylor | Dec 14, 2015

At the close of 2015, Utah manufacturing is a success story. It's a narrative of cross-industry diversity, game-changing workforce possibilities, and high-tech momentum. It's also challenged by the same headwinds facing regional and national manufacturers. The story of the Utah manufacturing renaissance is unfinished.

Utah companies are an impressive cast of characters. We know because we wrote about 70 or so Utah manufacturers across ten or so industry sectors last year. Among all manufacturers we wrote about, in Colorado and elsewhere, Utah's Storm Bowling was CompanyWeek's most-read profile in 2015. This collection of entrepreneurs and established makers and manufacturers are reshaping Utah's economy and leading a quiet resurgence in U.S. goods-producing prowess.

Much like neighboring Colorado, Utah manufacturing is evolving: food products is the fastest-growing sector, posting a 4.7 percent increase in employment year-over-year, driven by the state's bellwether industrial producers like Lehi Roller Mills but informed by the leading edge of Utah's wave of natural and organic makers like ProBar -- already a national mover in the uber-competitive healthy snack bar space. Craft makers are certainly a compelling story here -- with innovative, burgeoning craft brewing and distilling sectors developing here to slake increasingly local consumer tastes and parallel the momentum in the food sector. As we've seen across the West, they go hand in hand.

Utah boasts the region's most organized lifestyle manufacturing sector, and in the race to attract apparel, ski and snowboard, cycling and outdoor gear manufacturers, well-managed industry- cluster strategies are important. Increasingly, cooperation across Utah's business, higher-ed and governmental entities is a selling point for entrepreneurs and corporate relocation executives alike.

Workforce issues will continue to test Utah's manufacturing resurgence. The most prevalent challenge reported by Utah companies in CompanyWeek is finding and nurturing quality employees. Despite the state's string of wins as nation's most business-friendly state, manufacturers here will hit a wall; growth in Utah's high-tech manufacturing sector, most notably, will strain higher education as systemic changes -- including more job-shadowing and internship programs -- don't arrive fast-enough to alleviate pain.

The question is how the state will respond, and Utah seems uniquely positioned to make a workforce breakthrough. The combination of world-class universities, close-knit community, and favorable economic development variables leave Utah in the catbird's seat. The scale of the workforce challenge feels more pronounced in neighboring Colorado; other states seem less focused on people.

But labor is just one component of an evolving supply-chain that will determine how far and how fast Utah's manufacturing economy can grow. Today, high-tech fabricators and industrial firms looking to replace retiring stalwarts feel the labor pinch most. Elsewhere, natural and organic food companies need more locally produced raw materials. Technology is a catalyst if it's available, a barrier if not; ask apparel and sewn-product companies making skiwear and outdoor gear. Generally, manufacturers need a more robust supply chain, and that's an ingredient often lost on those who support business.

For our part, we'll focus our editorial efforts in 2016 where we left off this year: shining a light on Utah's growth companies to inspire and inform likeminded companies; profiling more supply-chain companies including contract manufacturers to facilitate meaningful connections that advance business; and advocating policies and public-sector investment that provides a foundation for more U.S.-made goods.

We'll do so in 2016 without a co-branding partnership with the Utah Manufacturing Association, one that helped us find and write about Utah's top manufacturers when we launched over a year ago. It's a good time for CompanyWeek to go its own way as independent media and for UMA to focus on what it does best.

We're thrilled to have one of Utah's finest, Alicia Cunningham, leading our editorial efforts. Email Alicia to encourage us to profile your business or help in other ways to continue to showcase Utah's incredible manufacturing sector.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek Utah. Contact him at