Manufacturing Trends in the Great Lakes Region


Great Lakes manufacturing trends point to manufacturers leveraging technology, geographic advantages, and an experienced workforce to drive growth in the region, the nation, and around the globe.

The six U.S. states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin) that make up the Great Lakes region are an economic powerhouse. In fact, the Great Lakes region, if it were a nation, would be a $6 trillion economy with the third largest GDP in the world, notes Crain’s Cleveland Business. While the region’s economic outlook has been improving over the last few years, its manufacturing base suffered a crisis from 2000 to 2010. During that rough patch, Great Lakes manufacturing lost 1.6 million jobs, or 35% of its total manufacturing workforce.

Michigan and Ohio, which traditionally depend on automobile and auto parts manufacturing, were especially hard hit during the Great Lakes downturn of 2000-2010, as was the forestry and paper sectors in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Whether it’s thriving or turning downward, manufacturing matters a great deal to the Great Lakes regional economy. While 6.9% of all U.S. jobs were in manufacturing in 2015, that number was 10.5% in the Great Lakes. Employment in Great Lakes manufacturing firms has rebounded recently, stopping the job losses and even adding new jobs since 2010.

map of the great lakes manufacturing region

What are the most important manufacturing trends in the Great Lakes region? Let’s look at 4:

1. A Resurgence of Employment, But Also a Growing Skills Gap

Great Lakes manufacturers added 350,000 new jobs from 2010 to 2015, and job growth has only accelerated since then. Michigan, which was hardest hit during the horrible 2000-2010 period, had seen a comeback in automobile manufacturing, which has also had positive ripple effects on auto parts makers in Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere. Michigan, and manufacturing companies like Detroit-based Shinola, has become a symbol of the resurgence of U.S. manufacturing.

Great Lakes manufacturers are looking for employees with digital and data skills

That said, the types of jobs Great Lakes manufacturers are seeking to fill today have changed. The jobs that left in 2000 aren’t the same ones that are coming back now. Automation and the emergence of smart manufacturing have meant that Great Lakes manufacturers are looking for talent/employees with digital and data skills. And these skills are increasingly hard to find, especially in light of the next trend.

2. Demographic Changes Hitting Great Lakes Manufacturers

As the Great Lakes hemorrhaged manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010, especially in MIchigan and Ohio, the region suffered an exodus of young, educated talent seeking job opportunities in other parts of the country. What this means is that the manufacturing workforce in the Great Lakes is getting older, while younger people continue to view manufacturing employment as unstable (they are mistaken here, since opportunities are growing fast). In 2015, 46% of the manufacturing workforce in the Great Lakes was aged 45 to 64, while that number in 2000 was 36%, according to the 2017 report The Future of the Great Lakes. As more Baby Boomers continue to retire, Great Lakes manufacturers will face challenges retaining the know-how they’ll need to maintain business continuity as they seek to hire new employees who may have stigmatized perceptions of manufacturing. A “manufacturing jobs gap” will keep widening, and closing that gap with the right employees with the right skills won’t be easy for any Great Lakes manufacturer.

Great Lakes manufacturers are working smarter, adopting digital and data-driven approaches that make them more agile and more efficient


3. More Innovation in Great Lakes Manufacturing

Great Lakes manufacturers have been growing because they are working smarter, adopting digital and data-driven approaches that make them more agile and more efficient. They are also drivers of innovation in global manufacturing. For example, the University of Michigan is currently working with the state’s automobile makers to test autonomous (self-driving) vehicles at the MCity test facility, which is the world’s “first purpose-built proving ground for testing connected and automated vehicles and technologies in simulated urban and suburban driving environments.”

In another innovation-driving initiative, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) is working with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), to roll out a new digital marketplace that will help connect manufacturers around the country to optimize manufacturing operations, according to The Milwaukee Business Journal. As they always have, Great Lakes firms will continue to be trailblazers, innovating in smart manufacturing, 3D printing in manufacturing, sustainable/green manufacturing practices, and much more.

chicago is one of the hotspots for great lakes region manufacturing

4. Going Even More Global

Due to its geography, Great Lakes manufacturers have always been global leaders closely connected to international supply chains. That globalizing trend will only continue and expand in the future. In the first half of 2017, for instance, Michigan’s exports rose by 8.1% when compared to the prior year, reaching $38.5 billion. Wisconsin’s exports also grew by 8% in that same period. Minnesota, home to global traders like Cargill and 3M, grew its exports by a healthy 5%. Global trade helps manufacturing in the Great Lakes region.

Not only do Great Lake manufacturers send their offerings to Canada and abroad (often using the renowned St. Lawrence Seaway System), but more manufacturers from abroad are looking to relocate their operations to the Great Lakes region, taking advantage of its world-leading manufacturing workforce while seeking to avoid potential trade tariffs. Global manufacturer Foxconn, most famous for making Apple’s iPhones in China, will be opening a manufacturing site in Wisconsin, adding 3,000 manufacturing jobs in “the badger state.”

What the 4 manufacturing trends above show clearly is that the Great Lakes region is making a comeback, leading the overall comeback of U.S. manufacturing. In 2018 and beyond, Great Lakes manufacturers will continue leveraging technology, geographic advantages, and an experienced workforce to drive growth in the region, the nation, and around the globe.

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