Wisconsin Sizes Up Recent, Potential Future Changes in Manufacturing

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shareholder meeting that his company plans to invest more than $10 billion in a display-making plant in the U.S. Foxconn said its potential investment could create up to 50,000 jobs.

The company is said to be considering other states besides Wisconsin, including Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

Last week, an airplane used by Gou was spotted at the Milwaukee and Madison airports, as state legislators consider passing a bill aimed at persuading Foxconn to build in Wisconsin.

A recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report raised a key question: what happens if Foxconn does pick the Badger State? According to academic and business leaders interviewed in the report, technical colleges would need to change their course offerings to equip students with skills that meet Foxconn’s staffing needs; information technology professionals could be poached away, leaving voids at their former employers; and wage inflation would likely occur.

Foxconn has indicated that any manufacturing facility it builds in the U.S. would use advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence. Hicks, the Ball State economics professor, says that as engineers have designed more sophisticated factory-floor machines over the years, many companies have been able to maintain or increase their levels of production while employing far fewer workers.

“The inflation-adjusted value of things that are made in Wisconsin is still at or near the [historical] peak of production, but the state has lost vast numbers of manufacturing employees,” Hicks says. “This is a profound paradox.”

While automation has reduced the number of workers needed at factories across the country, in some cases manufacturing employees’ jobs aren’t going away, but are instead changing significantly. For instance, maintenance engineers at facilities with Internet-connected machines don’t need to spend nearly as much time collecting and analyzing data as they did in the past, says Anurag Garg. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Dattus, an Indianapolis-based startup that develops software for sensors designed to be placed on industrial machinery. These sensors allow the machines to share data with Internet-connected servers, and with each other. The company is part of the Internet of Things (IoT) sector, which involves updating formerly offline devices with Internet capabilities.

“What IoT is doing is augmenting, not displacing, the existing workforce,” Garg says. “Dattus helps to automate data collection and analysis. The same team of maintenance engineers can now focus their efforts on fixing and repairing things, and making sure machines stay up and running, as opposed to collecting data and doing data analysis.”

Maintenance engineers are paid relatively well, Garg says, but there continues to be a shortage of people who can fill openings at manufacturing companies.

Hicks says today, teenagers and people in their 20s are more likely to view working in manufacturing as an “employment option of last resort” than those in their parents’ or grandparents’ generations.

“Some people would rather be a legal assistant making $30,000 less a year than being a manufacturer, just because of the cultural lack of enthusiasm for it,” he says.

Shine Medical Technologies will of course need to hire enough qualified workers to staff the production facility it plans to open in three years. Fortunately for the company, it would likely be a fraction of the size of the electronic display plants to which Foxconn has alluded. Pitas, of Shine, says she’s confident her company will be able to attract a sufficient quantity and quality of prospective employees.

“We don’t anticipate finding workers for the manufacturing facility will be a significant challenge,” Pitas says.

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