State lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer continue to find common ground on measures to help Michigan manufacturers respond to the unique challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That includes allowing temporarily laid-off manufacturing workers to continue receiving unemployment benefits even without actively looking for another job, as well as providing $6 million in funding for manufacturing-centered programs at select high schools statewide.
“There is a great deal of focus from the Whitmer administration on manufacturing,” said John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association and a former GOP state representative from Livonia. “They have included us in all of their conversations. They reach out to our members and to the industry on a regular basis. We were one of the first groups to open at the shutdown. … The legislature is also hyper focused.”
Protecting the workforce
Senate Bill 501 — sponsored by state Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, and signed by Whitmer last month — adjusted the state’s policy for unemployment benefits to address the unique dynamic in manufacturing supply chains, including the global chip shortage harming the auto industry.
The bill allows workers who are temporarily unemployed because of manufacturing slowdowns to continue receiving unemployment benefits without looking for a new job. Before S.B. 501, workers who had been laid off for more than 45 days were no longer eligible for the work search waiver and were forced to look for employment to receive benefits.
The bill aims to help manufacturers retain their workforce, especially when a portion of that workforce is temporarily sidelined by production slowdowns.
“The global chip shortage is a huge hurdle for our manufacturers and their employees right now,” Horn said in a statement on the bill signing last month. “With my bill, workers on extended layoff are protected and manufacturers aren’t losing their workforce before they can begin production again.”
S.B. 501 “really has a huge impact,” said Walsh, whose organization worked with the state’s Unemployment Insurance Agency and Horn to guide the direction of the legislation.
“The unusual nature coming off of COVID, and now the silicon chip shortage, really exacerbated (the labor challenges),” Walsh added. “Our labor pool is very tight right now, and anything that helps an employer hold on to their highly valued employees and ensure that they have money to survive for the period of time, we’re going to support.”
Also in July, Whitmer approved a $6 million appropriation intended to double the number of schools participating in the Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education (PRIME) initiative. The MMA developed the program in partnership with the Southfield-based SME Education Foundation.
This tailored curriculum uses hands-on training and industry-standard equipment, allowing high school students to gain a vivid look into the modern world of manufacturing.
Michigan is home to 17 SME PRIME schools, which include Grand Haven High School in Ottawa County and Whitehall High School in Muskegon County.
Developing a pipeline of potential manufacturing workers from high schools is important for an industry that has been plagued by an ongoing workforce and skills gap, which was exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We’re going to focus on these longer term investments,” Walsh said. “Helping students and parents understand the value of being in manufacturing and learning a skilled trade is one part of that. The second part is making sure that high schools have the equipment and the training to meet what we hope is an increasing demand. PRIME addresses both of those.”
Marne-based contract metal fabricator and manufacturer DeWys Manufacturing Inc. has felt the labor pinch. The company is currently 230 employees strong with around 30 unfilled openings.
Early in the pandemic, the company did issue layoffs that started off as temporary and became permanent in most cases. Demand snapped back for the company in the fall of 2020, and DeWys has been scrounging for talent ever since.
Meanwhile, DeWys tapped into the state’s Work Share program that allows companies to reduce hours for employees but supplement their pay with unemployment.
DeWys, which supplies a variety of industries, has been able to sidestep significant fluctuations in orders. Still, any legislation that promotes a more robust talent pipeline catches the ear of Laura Preuss, DeWys’ workforce development manager.
“PRIME and any sort of ability to help us get into K-12 is extremely important, especially in that elementary and middle-school age where they’re just starting to formulate their career ideas,” Preuss said. “They need exploration and they need a better understanding of what careers and opportunities are like.”
Walsh said the state and industry should also be focusing on long-term programs that will transform manufacturing for decades, rather than only filling short-term gaps. He believes this will be possible to execute with the deluge of federal relief funding available coming out of the pandemic.
“It really is now or never, in my opinion,” Walsh said. “If we get it right, manufacturing can continue to be, or perhaps exceed, 20 percent of our economy.
“If we don’t get it right, we’ll lose business to other states that do — or other countries.”
News coverage in the manufacturing section of MiBiz is made possible by advertising support from The Michigan Economic Development Corporation. MEDC markets Michigan as the place to do business, assists businesses in their growth strategies and fosters the growth of vibrant communities across the state. This advertisement has no effect on editorial consideration in MiBiz.