If you are a small to medium-sized manufacturer in the United States, likely you are familiar with the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). If you are not familiar with it, now is the time to become better acquainted.
The MEP, which is part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is a network of public/private partnerships across the country and in Puerto Rico. It works with small to midsized manufacturers to help them be more competitive. In fiscal 2014, the MEP says it interacted with some 30,000 manufacturers, assisting them in achieving $6.7 billion in new and retained sales, and $1.1 billion in cost savings.
It's a particularly busy time of year for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership. In advance of an upcoming recompetition to operate MEP centers in 12 states, the organization will hold three regional forums, beginning this month, to address questions from interested parties. In addition, Manufacturing Day, which the MEP co-produces, is slightly more than a month away, on Oct. 2. And, of course, aiding the U.S. manufacturing community is a year-round effort.
"A very important role for MEP has always been championing for manufacturing," says Carroll Thomas, MEP director.
Thomas is both new to and a veteran of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership. She was appointed director earlier this year, and her tenure as such is approaching five months. However, prior to her most recent position, with the U.S. Small Business Administration, Thomas spent nearly 13 years with the MEP in several roles.
She's also a former small manufacturer, a producer of custom frames for both wholesale and retail trade with a staff of about 25. The director says she will keep the perspective of a small business owner front and center as she leads the MEP.
That's exactly what Thomas has been doing in her first four months. The director said her first push upon starting the new position was to review the organization and ask questions: What are we doing? What are we offering? Is it truly of value? Is it going to move the needle?
"Whatever we do really needs to be of assistance and true help," Thomas says, "so that we truly are the go-to experts -- the folks who don't waste your time as a business owner, but give you something you can use."
The network's breadth of products and services spans process improvement and workforce development to supply chain optimization and growth initiatives. Thomas emphasizes that the offerings are tailored by location.
"For instance, what manufacturers in Pennsylvania need is very different than what ones in Wyoming need," she says.
Manufacturing is People
Thomas also aims to emphasize the people side of manufacturing. In a recent post on the MEP's Manufacturing Innovation blog, she wrote: "But manufacturing is about more than the products we use. Manufacturing is fundamentally about the people who create these products and their stories. We can expand our thinking about manufacturers as more than just 'companies where people work.' Manufacturers are more than just facilities filled with equipment. Manufacturers are comprised of great people, each with their own story to share."
"To me, MEP didn't just help U.S. manufacturers create 729,000 jobs [since 1988]. MEP helped 729,000 people – our parents, children, siblings, neighbors, and friends – find their careers."
She shared much the same with IndustryWeek. "A lot of time we get caught up in supply chain [for example]. Well, supply chains are a lot of people who own businesses," she says. "They're not inanimate objects. When you get a supply chain in the room, none of them are actually chains; they are people."
Manufacturing Day and the Importance of Manufacturing
Thomas' blog post outlined a series of "next steps" for the MEP. Among the steps: Emphasize the importance of U.S. manufacturing to the public through initiatives such as National Manufacturing Day that will attract younger people to the manufacturing workforce."
"I believe that being a champion -- broadcasting manufacturing – is an important responsibility and role for MEP," Thomas says.
Manufacturing Day has been a galvanizing force, she said, in spreading the message to high school students and their parents that good jobs exist in manufacturing for men and women. Encouraging manufacturers to open their doors to the community is a prominent component of Manufacturing Day.
"This year we hope to have events at more than 2,000 manufacturing plants across the country," Thomas says.
The MEP director says the introduction of Manufacturing Day has also proven to help manufacturing in an unanticipated way. While the day was envisioned as a means to attract younger people into the workforce, it also has helped drive engagement among the long-time workers, Thomas said.
"It has raised awareness. Some of the manufacturers themselves now use Manufacturing Day to engage their employees to engage their communities … taking pride in their position as manufacturers," she says. "They see themselves now as pillars of the community that really have very good jobs that bring in substantive support for the economy of their region or their town or their city. It's sort of a pride, a pride in community, a pride again in the profession of manufacturing."