Here in the Twin Ports, we continue to experience low unemployment and strong job growth, especially in the manufacturing sector. Despite our industry's fair share of challenges, from foreign competition to the cost of materials, we are thriving.

Related contentWhile there are many factors we can't control, there are many we can. Ensuring a strong culture of workforce development, continuous improvement, and smart business practices are just a few of the ways we can position ourselves to be in a place of acceleration when times are booming or be nimble and innovative when times are slower. In fact, I believe this commitment to improvement and workforce development is a key reason why manufacturers in our region are strong, job-creating engines.

The strength of our industry lies with the hands and brains of the people on our production floors. Although some may still think of manufacturing as a repetitive work environment, it's far from it. We need critical thinkers and problem-solvers. We use a continuous-improvement approach to improve products, services, and processes in our facilities; but it's just as important to develop people.

We foster employee engagement and a maximized workforce through efforts like cross-training across all parts of our organization, which also reduces the risk of layoffs if one area of production slows down.

When our employees see an opportunity for improvement at Ikonics, they can bring their ideas to managers and be directly involved in making change. Not every idea is a success, and that's OK. But when employees are empowered to speak up, it can make the whole team's life easier.

For instance, production process times for our primary line have been reduced more than 50 percent in the last three years due to changes recommended by the team. Employees have helped streamline documentation and suggested ways to communicate better so there are fewer errors. When people know their minds are valued as much as their hands, they are empowered to bring forth ideas that help create a better workplace culture for everyone.

Our industry also knows that connecting with people has to go beyond the four walls of our facility. When I first moved here to Duluth, I was encouraged to discover the close collaboration among area manufacturers and the partnerships they had with local governments and schools. For example, I am a member of the Northern Aero Alliance, a partnership of aviation industry and agency stakeholders in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin which work together to enhance industry-wide success, including sharing best practices and process improvements. I also sit on advisory committees at Lake Superior College and at the University of Wisconsin-Superior to ensure curriculums match the skill sets our industry needs. This extended network has been beneficial for many of us manufacturers and I suspect for students seeking employment as well.

We can all be proud of our strong manufacturing industry because it's not about machines or processes; it's about empowering and connecting with people.

 

Sue Boudrie is the operations manager for Ikonics Corp. in Duluth.

 

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What: 11th annual State of Manufacturing survey, sponsored by Enterprise Minnesota, a consulting organization; the survey is a barometer of the manufacturing industry’s status in Minnesota and is a report on the perceptions, opinions, challenges, and successes the industry faces

When: The results of the annual survey are to be released May 14

Where: The results will be released at the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center, Minn.

In Duluth: An event will be held Thursday, June 20 at the Kitchi Gammi Club

More online: For the full State of Manufacturing event schedule and to register events go to enterpriseminnesota.org/state-of-manufacturing/state-of-manufacturing-events