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UIX: To Birgit Klohs and team, West Michigan is The Right Place for manufacturing


West Michigan may be the right place for manufacturing, but it's The Right Place, and the economic development organization's CEO, Birgit Klohs, that are helping the industry grow.
West Michigan has long been a major seat of manufacturing and innovation in the Midwest. With an engine of talent and knowledge pushing us through each industrial revolution, our community has adapted to the needs of the global economy and forged its own destiny.
 
In Grand Rapids, the manufacturing foundation was set with the furniture and automotive industries over a century ago. It's since grown to include biopharmaceuticals, metal manufacturing, and plastics. Names like Steelcase, Amway, Bissell, and Wolverine are just a few of those that have given the area international respect, but with about four out of every five manufacturers in West Michigan employing less than 250, small business is vital to the the area's commercial base as well.
 
Sustainable and steady growth is the mission of The Right Place, the economic development organization that bolsters West Michigan's businesses with the appropriate supply lines, resources, incentives, and more. The organization's concentration on manufacturing is no small undertaking, as it accounts for more than 20 percent of all the jobs in the area today. That's about 150,000 jobs, and as the Right Place continues to lead the way in promoting local manufacturing, that number is rising.
 
The Right Place has been in business as a partnership between private and public resources for 31 years. For 29 of those years, it's been under the guidance of president and CEO Birgit Klohs. Born and raised in Germany, Klohs graduated from Western Michigan University before spending a summer working for Manpower and the Economic Development Corporation.
 
"I didn't even know what economic development was at the time, quite honestly," she says.
 
But that soon changed. Klohs landed a job in Grand Rapids and soon after transitioned into her leadership role at The Right Place. Her work hasn't gone unnoticed, either. Along with several distinguished titles over the years, Klohs was even appointed a trustee of WMU by former Gov. John Engler.
 
Certainly, a lot has changed in the manufacturing landscape since then, but The Right Place has remained steadfast in its support of what Klohs calls "core foundational jobs."
 
"In other words, as much as we would like a new shoe store, we are supporting the kind of jobs that will allow you to go buy that pair of shoes," she says.
 
Given the economic fluctuations of the last few decades, manufacturing hasn't always been attractive to investors. Those looking to capitalize on quick solutions proposed ambiguous innovation, while moving manufacturing jobs to countries where labor is cheaper. The Right Place has consistently swam against that current and, Klohs maintains, is proving to be headed in the right direction.
 
"There's a manufacturing renaissance in a different kind of way than it was 30 years ago, but clearly manufacturing remains a core business not only in our region but in this country," she says.

New approaches
 
Innovation is tied closely to manufacturing in The Right Place's strategic plan. "Smart Manufacturing," as deemed by Klohs and The Right Place, is the new face of industry in West Michigan. It involves high-tech work and highly skilled workers in a constantly evolving marketplace. Where economic development has traditionally focused on the isolated brick-and-mortar side of business, ideas and realities have been changing. A collaborative economic environment promotes growth, and for decades, The Right Place has been fostering that spirit.
 
"You build a new building, you add employees, you add machinery and equipment. That's great, obviously we look for that investment," Klohs says. "What if you're not doing something physical? How can we help you get better and stay competitive?"
 
Answers to this question came from over a hundred different businesses The Right Place queried shortly after Klohs joined the team. 
 
"What arose from all of those interviews was that they wanted to collaborate with each other, they wanted to share best practices with each other, and they wanted to share the manufacturing story with the community," she says.
 
While area businesses have incorporated new methods of cooperation to facilitate growth, nothing has changed the manufacturing landscape more than the implementation of new technologies. 
 
Bill Small"One of the biggest shifts that we've seen over the last few years is technology. It's helped the industry just explode," says The Right Place Vice President of Technical Services Bill Small. "It offers manufacturing all kinds of new options in automation and new materials and new ways of making products."
 
Accelerating off innovations from the state's eastern automotive coast and western furniture manufacturers, Michigan businesses are experiencing record growth and low unemployment. But without the right guidance, that acceleration can be hard to direct.
 
"Manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to balance how they get their production out the door and how they find good people," Small says. "They're looking for people with a good work ethic, who are able to learn and grow with the business, who want to learn and grow both on the technical side and the leadership side."
 
From working directly with businesses, to effecting policies, to sharing the manufacturers' message with schools and regional youth, The Right Place is committed to seeding and improving these stories. Around 400 companies currently share talent and resources through The Right Place, providing diverse learning opportunities for anyone interested in the field.
 
Centralized message 
 
The Right Place has earned its name as a regional partner of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, overseeing economic development and strategic planning for small and medium manufacturing operations in the 13 county area of West Michigan. The MMTC is a federal program, sponsored by the state, functioning similar to a farm extension, Klohs says. Perhaps most the biggest similarity is a concentration on growth. 
 
"A lot of times this companies don't have the depth of employee management that a very big company has. How do you get six sigma into the company? Lean manufacturing processes? The Toyota production system? Strategic planning?" she asks. "As part of our retention strategy for manufacturers, we reach out to small and medium manufacturing companies and ask what other things they need to stay competitive and to stay in business, and then we find the resources for those companies.
 
Whether its a new plant layout, updated equipment, or more workers, the Right Place can connect growing companies with those who can supply those resources. The foundation of this local network is largely thanks to the creation of The Right Place/MMTC-West Manufacturers Council in 1989. Managed and staffed by the Right Place, the 30-member body advocates for regional manufacturing success. 
 
"For over 27 years now, that is exactly what they have done," Klohs says of the council. "We have put out white papers on manufacturing with them. We have put out white papers on how to improve operations. The council really is the voice of manufacturing in our region. Often when bills are being discussed in Lansing or Washington, they weigh in on how it would effect them. The council really is one of our key legs of support for manufacturing."
 
The MMTC-West Manufacturers Council is a trusted forum for manufacturers to get together and talk about their best practices, what's working for them, and how they're tackling different economic situations, like changing unemployment rates, Small says. Originally based in Kent County, there are similar manufacturers councils now set up in Montcalm, Ionia, Newaygo, Mason, and Barry Counties.
 
Out of the Manufacturers Council grew a number of initiatives, many based on lean manufacturing practices and improving quality, Klohs says, but talent procurement stands out on its own. Working with Grand Rapids Community College and other local universities, The Right Place has been able to share the manufacturers' definition of a top-notch employee with students starting at the high school level.
 
Finding talent
 
Discover Manufacturing is a student-focused program and collaboration between the council and Michigan Works! aimed at expanding manufacturing talent in West Michigan. It's a field that doesn't always appeal to young people, but paired with educational incentives, the program is driving more and more toward manufacturing careers.
 
"It's not too easy to convince a young person today that there are good jobs in the manufacturing sector," Klohs says. "A lot of people and a lot of parents thing the field goes through ups and downs, doesn't pay very well, and manufacturing is often perceived as dirty and unskilled. You will need a 2-year degree from a community college, but if you come and join us at one of our companies and change your mind and want to go to a 4-year college to become an engineer, we would support that."
 
Students in the Discover Manufacturing program can take advantage of countless job shadowing and STEM education opportunities while pursuing an advanced engineering degree at one of several local schools.
 
Michigan Works! and The Right Place collaborate yearly on MICareerQuest, a massive local job fair combining the areas of manufacturing, health care, and IT. The Right Place organizes manufacturing partners for the event, which has grown to see nearly 8,000 attendees since it began in 2015. 
 
"A lot of the manufacturing companies had brought in equipment to show the young people what manufacturing is like today," Klohs said of the last MICareerQuest, held in May. "They brought in 3D printers and other equipment to show the students that it is a really high-tech environment that requires high-tech skills."
 
During Manufacturing Week, The Right Place and West Michigan manufacturers open their doors to students. During this year's event, over 50 of West Michigan largest companies welcomed their students to show them how modern manufacturing is done. And according to Small, when it comes to getting the job done, West Michigan has always been the right place.
 
"Manufacturing in West Michigan has always been an anchor of the state," Small says. "The automotive industry has looked to us for tool and die facilities, plastic injection molding, and metal forming, stamping, and fabricating companies. It's a huge employer on the West side and it's really something that I would say is not as well known. Our manufacturers do what they do. They put their heads down and work hard."
 
For more information on The Right Place, visit http://www.rightplace.org/
 
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
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