Helping manufacturers in Maryland, where the sector has changed — and shrunk — dramatically in the last generation, takes a certain type of person.
Like Brian Sweeney, an engineer and attorney who grew up in a factory.
Sweeney is executive director of the Maryland Manufacturing Extension Partnership. The Columbia nonprofit works with small and medium-sized makers of goods in the state to identify problems and opportunities and is among the groups that launcheda Make it in Maryland campaign last week.
Sweeney chatted with The Baltimore Sun about the sector, his nonprofit and the potential for growth.
What's the goal of the Make it in Maryland effort?
Manufacturing does not have a dominant image in the state. You only hear about it in a negative context — 'Oh, we're losing jobs at Sparrows Point' or 'X company's leaving.' So our Make it in Maryland is an attempt to present manufacturing as an opportunity for growth in the state.
The image of manufacturing traditionally has been the old molten metal, heavy industry manufacturing. And Maryland is not that. Maryland is a growing, entrepreneurial, innovative manufacturing state. We make aerial vehicles; we make … Paul Reed Smith guitars. We've got people designing infrared technologies.
What we want to do through the Make it in Maryland campaign is get younger people excited about working in manufacturing because you're working with these cool new technology-driven manufacturing companies. If you're interested in cooking, you've got Tulkoff Foods. ... If you're interested in beer, making beer, RavenBeer is made here in Maryland. … There's a whole bandwidth of opportunity here, but it's just not presented to kids in a way that excites them.
The last piece is to start connecting companies in Maryland to each other. Phil Tulkoff from Tulkoff Foods … bottles goods. There's a bottling company here in Maryland that makes bottles. How cool would it be to connect those companies? … The idea is, rather than buying that bottle from Ohio or Philadelphia or North Dakota, buy it here. And what it does is, it helps those Maryland companies grow. … It's better management to have closer supply chains.
How long has the Manufacturing Extension Partnership been around?
We've been around for eight years, but we got our Department of Commerce funding last October and changed our name a year ago to reflect a focused mission on the state of Maryland. In the past we focused nationally.
We're [now] part of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, which is a national network of technical consulting programs. … The program here in Maryland was formerly focused at the University of Maryland.
Maryland has lost a large share of its manufacturing jobs in the last generation. Is this reversible?
It's definitely a reversible trend. And part of it is recognizing what manufacturing is. Yeah, we've lost some large manufacturing with Sparrows Point, but there's a lot of growing small, medium-sized manufacturers in the state that are doing really cool stuff. And I never cease to be amazed when I go into these companies, the neat things that they make.
There are manufacturers that are moving to the state, but those are not as many as the ones that are being homegrown here. So there's a lot of startups here, people that are producing new things, have ideas, and are small, growing companies. And those companies are prime for growth here. A little nudge here, a little support here, a little help there, and these companies are just poised for expansion.
It would be hard for us to compete in a commodities world, but where we should excel is in high technology, high-end products that meet the technology needs of our country. … If you want a cheap guitar, then you can get one from overseas. If you want a high-end, high-quality precision guitar, you go to Paul Reed Smith.
How much of an issue is it for manufacturers to find workers? Are jobs going begging, and if so, why, given the difficulties that Sparrows Point steel mill workers have had?
It's a big issue. I would say it's one of the leading inhibitors of growth. And [the state has] recognized that and they're putting some programs together to help fill those jobs.
[Compared with Sparrows Point jobs, the skills needed] are not necessarily directly transferable. And you have to recalibrate people for that.
Do you have a manufacturing background? What interests you about this work?
My father was an engineer in a saw blade manufacturing facility. … Every Saturday, we'd go into my father's factory; we'd run around the factory. And as I grew older, I did consulting for a number of manufacturing companies, more oriented toward business process improvement.
I'm an engineer at heart. I like to make stuff. I like to take a concept through design into the actual end-state product, and I think that's cool.
For me, it's exciting … to help a company to make more of something, make it faster, make it higher quality, get it into another market.