By Jeff Vedders

Many small towns across America have been decimated over the past few years by large, single manufacturing employers closing facilities and laying off thousands of employees.  For many of these communities, the manufacturing employer is the single source of employment.  It seems that you hear about these plant closings daily.  In fact, Greenville, MI, which is a small community in my home state of Michigan, has just experienced such a loss.  Earlier this year, AB Electrolux, a Swedish-based conglomerate that manufacturers washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, and freezers, announced that it will close a 2,700-employee refrigerator plant in 2005.  Greenville is a community of 8,000, so you can imagine how devastating such a loss will be.

Unfortunately, there are many more towns like Greenville, MI.  Many of these communities have a much higher percentage of manufacturing jobs compared to urban areas.  What this means is rural communities are particularly vulnerable to manufacturing layoffs.  And when you add in the multiplier effect, where every manufacturing job is responsible for 2.5 other jobs in the community, it’s easy to see how damaging manufacturing closures can be to a small community. 

The trend for low wage manufacturing jobs to leave this country and move offshore is likely to continue, so what can a small community do?  The simple answer is to diversify your economy, but in reality that is a very difficult proposition.  Diversifying an economy brings about change, and change can be difficult for many communities.

However, with change comes opportunity.  This could be the perfect opportunity to come together as a community and decide your future for the next 10 to 20 years.  Once you reach a consensus on the types of industries and/or companies that you want to have, learn as much as possible about those industries and understand their needs.  When you have done so, you can determine what advantages you have to offer to expanding companies.  You will also know what you may need to create to attract your desired companies.

Also, help your existing manufacturers.  If the manufacturing process involves low-skill labor, perhaps you can work with the owner and provide training to assist in automating their process as much as possible.  This is one of the ways U.S. companies are able to compete globally.

Other strategies to consider include retaining as much talent as possible.  Put programs in place to attract the right talent; make your community a place where people don’t want to leave.  Educate and train your workforce as much as possible.  Also, don’t forget to grow your own.  Create an environment where entrepreneurs can thrive.

Rather than resist change, embrace it and plan for the future.  Now is the time to design your community for the next 10 to 20 years.