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Making things 'cool' company owners say



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March 04, 2014 | 05:07 PM
Wisconsin may be the state of milk and cheese, but it is also one of the leading states in manufacturing.

Mary Ibister, president of GenMet, Mequon, a metal fabricating business, said Wisconsin and Indiana trade off being first and second in the nation in annual manufacturing income.

“Wisconsin makes stuff,” said Ibister.

“And making stuff is cool,” she added.

Ibister and three other local manufacturing executives, Hanan Fishman, president of PartMaker Inc.; Brian White, president of GE’s Waukesha Engines Business; and Mike Reader, president of Precision Plus Inc., Elkhorn, were at Elkhorn Area High School Feb. 26 talking to high school students about the importance of manufacturing jobs and their rewards.

Elkhorn High School and Precision Plus partnered for the second annual Manufacturing Careers Panel.

The panelists laid out the possible career paths and opportunities available now for those who are interested in careers in manufacturing.

Perhaps the biggest draw for students is the promise of jobs with higher pay. At a time when middle class wages are stagnating, manufacturing wages have grown.

Manufacturing jobs now pay an average of $52,000 a year, said White. And machinists can make as much as $80,000 a year, he said.

Barry Butters, Precision Plus’ director of training and education, said this year about 200 students from Elkhorn, Badger, Delavan-Darien, Union Grove and Whitewater high schools attended the 90-minute presentation this year.

Last year, just three high schools sent students, Butters said. Precision Plus started intern programs last year for students in high school and college, with 10 students involved in the summer portion of the program and three participating during the school year.

Butters said Precision Plus intends to continue the program into next year, but it’s also looking for partners to help out, because the company has limited capacity for interns.

Literature at the program notes that the highest concentration of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. lies within a 90-mile radius of Waukesha.

Manufacturing is returning to the U.S., as companies realize that the costs of transportation are beginning to outweigh the savings in cheap overseas labor and that the U.S. is still the leader in producing educated workers.

The problem now, said Ibister, is finding enough workers to fill the need.

Ibister came to manufacturing through an indirect route.

She told the students that she had a degree in chemistry and worked for pharmaceutical companies, making and later setting up testing for pharmaceutical products.

But Ibister said she was always fascinated by the manufacturing process. Her husband worked in the defense industry for a company that helped build nuclear submarines.

In 1999, the two decided to buy a small manufacturing plant in Mequon. They named the company GenMet Corp.

The company now employs 75 people.

For years, society labeled manufacturing, or factory work, as “dirty, dumb and dangerous,” Ibister said. At the height of the Industrial Revolution in America, manufacturing was done in sprawling complexes that were dirty and often unsafe, she said.

Today, manufacturing centers are clean, air-conditioned and brightly-lit.

When manufacturing companies began leaving the U.S. for cheaper labor overseas, the label changed to “limited, low-skilled and leaving,” she added. And then there were the “one dog and one man” predictions of the all-automated factories.

Ibister said the story went “the man is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to keep the man from touching the machines.”

While mechanization, computers and robots have taken over most of the low-skilled work done at factories, humans are still needed for the skilled positions where judgment and creativity are required, Ibister said.

“It’s one thing to push ‘go’ on a multimillion dollar machine, it’s another thing to know what to do if the machine stops,” Ibister said.

Fishman of PartMaker Inc. said his company writes software for computer-aided manufacturing. The company was recently bought by a multinational manufacturing company. PartMaker, headquartered in Pennsylvania, sells its software worldwide. One of its customers is Precision Plus, Fishman said.

Fishman is the co-author of two U.S. patents for automating the programming of multi-axis computer numeric control (CNC) machines. The CNC lathes have programmable arms that turn both cutting tools and raw materials to create finished products.

“This is a profession for people interested in using their brain, rather than just putting a peg in a hole,” Fishman said.

Kathryn Lieffrig, a junior at Elkhorn, said she’s been interested in the modern manufacturing process since she attended Camp Badger at the University of Wisconsin when she was in seventh grade.

Citing Ibister as an inspiration, Lieffrig, who was one of just three students invited to attend the Manufacturing and Industrial Conference in Milwaukee on Feb. 27, said she’s interested in engineering and designing computer manufacturing programs.

Reader, president and owner of Precision Plus, Inc., has been part of the family-owned business for 18 years. The company specializes in precision-turned metal components for a variety of uses, from cuff links to military ordinance.

In fall 2012, Reader hosted faculty from the Elkhorn Area High School for plant tours and a discussion of skills needed for today’s advanced manufacturing.

Reader’s outreach to the school led to a career panel presentation last year and that led to 10 internships for the best and brightest over the summer.

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