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MinnWest Technology Campus to spotlight Willmar, Minn.-area manufacturing

Scott Butterfield uses a hole-puncher Monday as he prepares calendars in the assembly area of the Maracom plant in Willmar. Kandiyohi County is home to 74 manufacturing facilities. The sector will be spotlighted this week during an event at the MinnWest Technology Campus. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

These days, manufacturing is often seen as a cumbersome, ailing relic of the Rust Belt. Organizers of a new local event hope to knock down the negative stereotypes this week by shining a spotlight on a manufacturing industry that's both vital and innovative.

The "Discover Manufacturing Innovation Showcase" will be conducted from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday in the auditorium on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar.

It's a chance for students and the public to learn more about the local manufacturing industry, said Jean Spaulding, assistant director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

"The whole idea is really to focus on the strength of manufacturing in the community and what it brings," she said.

"I think people are going to be really surprised at what they learn. They're going to be surprised at the depth of what our local companies do."

The event coincides with Minnesota Manufacturers' Week this week. Sponsors, in addition to the Economic Development Commission, are the MinnWest Technology Campus, Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, Ridgewater College and Kandiyohi Area Transit.

Although manufacturing suffered during the recent recession, it has remained strong in Kandiyohi County, where it's second only to health care and social assistance as one of the largest employing industries.

The county is currently home to 74 manufacturers who collectively account for 3,042 jobs and a $28 million quarterly payroll. During the first quarter of 2011, it represented 14.2 percent of total employment in Kandiyohi County and 16.9 percent of the total payroll, according to figures from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

"The manufacturing sector in Kandiyohi County is really strong," Spaulding said. "For job creation, the manufacturers are very, very critical."

Local manufacturing is seeing a rebound after losing jobs during the recession. Employment rose through most of 2010, from 2,903 jobs during the first quarter of the year to 3,016 in the fourth quarter -- an increase of 3.9 percent.

Indeed, local economic development leaders point to a new challenge: the growing need for skilled workers to fill manufacturing jobs. In neighboring Swift County, for instance, the county's largest employer, Case New Holland, is building an addition to its plant in Benson and adding more than 50 jobs, but has been struggling to find enough qualified applicants.

Jobs in high demand in the region include those for industrial machinery mechanics, welders, industrial and chemical engineers, shipping and receiving clerks, distribution managers and manufacturing sales representatives.

To emphasize the career possibilities, organizers of Friday's event are especially targeting high school and technical college students, particularly those with an interest in the science, math, technology and engineering fields.

Bus tours are being lined up Friday to allow students a firsthand look at some local manufacturing facilities.

Feedback from the schools has been positive, Spaulding said. "When we called them, there wasn't a single one of them that hesitated."

Not only do jobs in the manufacturing sector tend to pay better than average but they also appeal to individuals who like the challenge of working with materials and producing something tangible, she said. "It's a great career path. ... We're trying to put a face to it."

Organizers also are encouraging job-seekers, employment agencies, business owners and the public to attend the manufacturing showcase. There will be a chance to browse through exhibits by about a dozen local manufacturers, visit with employers and go on tours of the technology campus.

"We encourage the public to come," Spaulding said. "You don't have to be a student to be interested in looking at careers. This is a really important segment of the business community. Come out and visit with them."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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