Revitalizing American manufacturing

In rural New York, local business, academia and government are working together to promote their area.

By ·

When I was a kid, way too many years ago, my Dad took me and my younger brother on sales trips during the summer months when we were out of school. He owned an industrial packaging company whose main product was wooden pallets, shipping crates and industrial lumber, which meant that every factory in the industrial Midwest was a potential customer. My brother and I saw America through the back end of a manufacturing plant.

While we certainly made trips to industrial parks in large cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Louisville and Cincinnati, a lot of those sales calls were made in small towns and cities in rural areas, places like Steubenville, West Virginia, Jamestown, New York and Ashtabula, Ohio. Many of those were one factory towns, where one manufacturer was the biggest employer in town. As factories closed, many of those places have turned to tourism. But tourism jobs don’t pay like manufacturing, or at least like manufacturing used to. What struck me after recent calls to the Greater Alleghany County Chamber of Commerce and Congressman Tom Reed, the U.S. Representative for New York’s 23rd congressional district, which includes Alleghany and Chautauqua Counties, is that many rural areas are still plugging away.

First, Alleghany County is situated in southwest New York, in the middle of ski country and not far from the Pennsylvania border. The total population is just under 50,000 and the county’s biggest town is Wellsville, population 7,700 people as of the last census. Despite its small size, it has several things going for it that might attract manufacturers: There are at least three institutions of higher learning, including Alfred State, Alfred University and Houghton College. And, it’s close to the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester, two schools with engineering and technology programs whose students are valued by manufacturers.

According to Gretchen Hanchett, executive director of the chamber, there is a long history of manufacturing. Dresser-Rand, a manufacturer of turbines for the gas, petrochemical industries and now part of Siemens, has been in the county for 100 years. So has Alstom Power Air Preheater, now known as Ljungstrom, a division of The Arvos Group. The county is also home to manufacturers of candles, electrical equipment and coatings. But the acquisition of mainstay manufacturers breeds anxiety. “Manufacturing is changing, and we’ve taken some hits,” said Hanchett. “We’re looking at bringing in smaller manufacturers who are flexible and can change with the way our world is changing.”

Part of that effort includes working with the local educational institutions, which are looking at how their curriculum can prepare students for the manufacturing jobs that are available in the area. This is much like the program I wrote about last month involving C&S Wholesale Grocers and Keene State College and Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. “We are workforce ready,” Hanchett said. “That’s a strength of Alleghany County.”

Part of Alleghany County’s strategy is networking, and that’s where Representative Reed comes into play. He is definitely a glass half full kind of guy when it comes to manufacturing in his county but also across the country. “I’m a firm believer in U.S. manufacturing,” he told me last week. In fact, his hometown, Corning is home to Corning, Inc., one of the leaders in the production of specialty glass, ceramics, and related materials and technologies including advanced optics. Perhaps the biggest challenges facing U.S. manufacturers, especially those in rural areas like his district, is the need for “the revitalization of the bones of our infrastructure, sewer, water and structures that can’t support some opportunities,” a ready workforce, and manufacturing’s brand issue. Too many people still think of manufacturing the way it was in the 20’s and 30’s. “They don’t realize that it’s high tech, highly skilled and computer assisted,” Reed said. “But, I think we’re beginning to see a renaissance.”

For his part, Reed co-sponsored with Joe Kennedy the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act, which among other things created funding for advance manufacturing centers. At least one of those centers, the AIM Photonics Manufacturing USA Institute, is located in Reed’s district. He also supported the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act signed into law in 2014, which provided funding at the county level to retrain an existing workforce. “People are taking advantage of it,” Reed said. “I was part of a roundtable that included people who’d left one career to become CDL drivers.”

Back in his district, he recently held his fourth manufacturing summit at Alfred State Lake Lodge. About 175 people attended, representing 60 companies, plus government officials and administrators like Alleghany County’s Hanchett. Reed says he launched the summits as a way to get companies and communities out of their silos. “Regions in a state look in their back yards and don’t branch out,” he said. “I wanted to bring different stake holders together and develop networks and share best practices.” While he acknowledges that just about every small town and community in the country is trying to attract business, his hope is that the networks developed at the summers “will strengthen the region.”

This year’s event included presentations on topics like the Manufacturing USA Program, which is seeking to revitalize American manufacturing, a panel on bringing skills to the workforce and a panel on government resources available to business.

I asked Hanchett, who moderated the workforce panel, what she gets out of the summit. “The biggest value is the networking,” she said. “The summit keeps getting bigger every year, bringing in people from Buffalo and Corning. We won’t grow unless we’re reaching out.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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