Mike and I are on an extended cross-country driving trip, and this is written from the car, driving through Wheatland County, MT. We spent the night in Roundup, in a spacious, newly painted and carpeted room at the America’s Best Value Inn that cost us only $50. Our host assured us that there was working free wireless access. “How can anyone get anything done without it? The router is right across from your window,” she said. She was in touch with customer needs, and value pricing too. At the Busy Bee Café this morning, I picked up “The Billings Outpost” and caught up on the happenings there.
Billings is the largest city in Montana – or as Chuck Tooley, former Billings mayor, businessman, and the new director of the Urban Institute of the Montana State University Billings, says, the only true urban area in the state. Enrollment growth in the local university is stagnant, but the area vocational-technical colleges have seen 25% growth in the last ten years.
Billings doesn’t have a lot to work with when it comes to increasing employment opportunities. The strategy centers around healthcare, with an eye on the demand for nurses and other health services for aging baby boomers. Retailers like Wal-Mart are among the biggest employers in the town. Except for a mention of two local oil refineries, the awareness of manufacturing seems to be absent. In fact, manufacturing seems to be absent.
Maybe manufacturing presents an unexplored opportunity. What does Billings have to offer? How about a potential source of workers. Agriculture is big in Montana (isn’t everything big in Montana?). People with farming experience are often ideal for manufacturing employment – usually there’s not a farm machine they don’t have an intimate acquaintance with. They have the ability to improve processes with more mechanization. Long work days are also their norm. And family-owned farms don’t pay these days, unless someone has a job outside the farm to bring in some cash. Big agriculture can invest in the biggest most automated equipment, so they can use fewer and fewer people to run things, releasing people for other employment options.
Unemployment is low, but so are wages. That suggests to me that a manufacturing company could offer an improved way of life for people now in low-wage retail and service jobs. Besides that, Montana has gas, oil, and coal. And manufacturing requires power.
Logistics could a problem, however. Rail services are plentiful, built to take cattle and grain to Chicago and points east. I-90 and I-94 join up in Billings, so trucking is convenient. But customers are far away. The high cost of gasoline makes distance a concern when it comes to large heavy items. So you’d have to make high-value small things. Who needs those?
Aerospace OEMs, in boom times right now, need wire harnesses, connectors, fasteners, bathroom door handles and other assorted doodads and doohickeys. Companies like John Deere need parts. And where there’s drilling and digging, there’s a need to make and remanufacture parts in a hurry – just what job shops do.
North Dakota (or was it South Dakota?) started developing aerospace manufacturing a few years ago. Later, when one of the big aircraft companies held a job fair, they were so impressed with the quality of the workforce, they built some new plants locally.
Finding a manufacturing entrepreneur can be unexpected. By chance, I stopped in White Sulphur Springs, looking for warmer clothes, and met Sarah Calhoun at her store, Red Ant Pants – “finally work wear for women.” Sarah designs the pants – the one’s I looked at were olive green canvas -comparable to the tan material Carhartt uses – with red stitching. The workmanship was excellent. She has the pants made in Seattle. We chatted about the apparel industry, and I told her about Kathleen Fasanella’s blog, “Fashion Incubator.” When I said Kathleen’s expertise includes lean manufacturing, Sarah knew what lean was. She’d been to a seminar about it – I thought she said it had been held by the Montana Manufacturers Association, which I can’t find on the web.
She might have said the Montana Manufacturing Center, one of NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership Centers, which seems like one of the more robust MEPs. They have some credible success stories on their website. But the MEPs can’t make manufacturing happen by itself.
As for Billings, I guess I’d suggest that the mayor get in touch with Mayor Graham Richard in Fort Wayne. He understands manufacturing as well as community development. And a tip to any lean manufacturers reading this – Montana offers the chance to bring people into a positive culture without the resistance and suspicion that holds back lean efforts in other places. Besides, it’s a beautiful place full of friendly people. I think you’d find Detroiters and Los Angelenos who’d trade an expensive and crowded place for Big Sky Country.