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Notes from the Field

Location, Location, Labor: What We’re Learning from Small and Midsize Urban Manufacturers in Ohio

While locating in an urban area helps, many small and midsize manufacturers still struggle to find suitable employees. What other barriers do they face, and how can local leaders and service providers help? Find out.

In a recent visit to Jergens, Inc., a manufacturer on the east side of Cleveland, I was struck by how advanced and customized the global production—in this case, of small metal parts—process has become. I saw a specialty fastener, a digital vending machine, and a $7,000 screwdriver ready to be shipped to China. The 450-person company, founded in 1942 and in its current location since 1998, continues to grow and benefits from a workforce that is largely homegrown, literally. Twenty-five percent of Jergens’ employees live within a 5 mile radius of the company. Still, the ability to find qualified workers, even those ready to be “trained up,” was cited as its number one challenge.

Smaller manufacturers, ranging from individual entrepreneurs to firms with 300 or 400 employees, echo a similar theme: suitable workers are challenging to find. A recent study by my colleagues Lisa Nelson and Ann Marie Wiersch, in partnership with Mark Foggin and the Urban Manufacturing Alliance, finds that one of the benefits of a firms’ locating in a city—particularly for specialized, small batch production—is the larger pool of available labor. The study included a survey of more than 100 small manufacturers and makers in Cincinnati, Ohio, and focus groups with manufacturers and service providers. Relatedly, it raised other important advantages of being located in Cincinnati, such as the proximity and access to talent from places such as University of Cincinnati’s design school. Still, despite the proximity to talent, small manufacturing firms reported significant workforce barriers that impact their ability to grow:

  • Competing with the popular narrative. Manufacturing and service providers noted that some would-be workers perceive that manufacturing may not offer a promising career pathway, given reports, or their own lived experience, of the sector’s historical decline. Another challenge cited is the negative perception of manufacturing held not by potential workers but by educators, investors, and advocates. According to the report, there is “a perception that city and regional officials do not see manufacturing as having the same potential as other sectors, such as tech or healthcare, which makes it challenging to attract investment.” Often manufacturing is quarantined into the category of a “vocational” track exclusive of college degrees. We can and should look to promote more blended pathways among skilled trades, tech, and higher education that may reflect the realities of today’s jobs.
  • Attracting and retaining employees. Repetitive tasks and an often-rigid work environment make it challenging to retain young workers and accommodate workers that need flexibility for child care or other reasons. In addition, small manufacturers cited their inability to offer healthcare coverage and other employment benefits as a key barrier to attracting and keeping workers.
  • Finding workers with job readiness skills. Small maker firms cited the importance of a customer-service orientation for all workers, whether they’re assembling products or packing orders.

Service providers that participated in the study recognize the workforce challenges faced by small manufacturers and offered ideas to assist these smaller firms. Manufacturers also provided input on what they would see as most valuable. One observation made, and a key benefit in Cincinnati, is that a strong network of service providers exists. Report author Mark Foggin noted, “Makers may be good at their craft but may not be as knowledgeable about the business side of running a company or the supportive services available to assist them.” Bridging that gap through better communication and stronger networking connections—especially among larger, more established firms—will help businesses as they move beyond the startup phase. Owners of smaller firms emphasized that services should be tailored to help manufacturers of different sizes and in different phases of growth.

There is no one-size-fits-all profile of an urban manufacturer, as the Cleveland and Cincinnati examples prove. Data points are limited, and it is often difficult to communicate the needs of a sector that is so diverse in nature. It is our hope that this and other research can help identify opportunities to increase interaction between small manufacturers like those interviewed in the study and larger firms like Jergens in order to identify ways that cities can support workers’ productivity and well-being and the firms’ growth. Efforts like this study help local leaders and service providers understand the challenges that manufacturers face so that they may make more informed choices about how to help firms grow and thrive.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.