Q&A: Chuck Spangler, CEO and president of the S.C. Manufacturing Extension Partnership

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Manufacturing is an ever-changing industry, with new issues arising every year. This year has been no exception, with the Trump administration waging a trade war on multiple fronts and imposing tariffs against China, the world’s largest manufacturing hub.

Chuck Spangler, CEO and president of the S.C. Manufacturing Extension Partnership. Photo provided.

In South Carolina, one of the leaders guiding the manufacturing industry through these volatile market conditions is Chuck Spangler, the CEO and president of the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, or SCMEP.

SCMEP is a nonprofit that aims to promote business growth by connecting manufacturers across the Palmetto State to public and private resources essential to their achieving increased competitiveness and profitability.

In an exclusive interview with the Upstate Business Journal, Spangler discussed the state of manufacturing in South Carolina, how the organization is helping companies improve their operations, and the effectiveness of their efforts.

The following transcript has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Upstate Business Journal: What is the state of manufacturing in South Carolina?

Chuck Spangler: The manufacturing sector is doing well. The state has transitioned from traditional manufacturing to an advanced manufacturing state in 20 short years. It is more diversified than ever before and currently has 60,000-plus statewide manufacturing job openings.

How would you describe the Upstate manufacturing community?

CS: The Upstate’s performance is outstanding. New companies are moving in and existing companies are expanding. … Large [original equipment manufacturers] have improved their supply chain performance over the last few years, which has benefited many suppliers.

What market conditions do you see impacting South Carolina manufacturers in 2018 and 2019?

CS: Market conditions are solid for 2018 and positive for the first half of 2019. Several top economists are looking at a possible slowdown in late 2019. There is also a lot of uncertainty over the potential impact tariffs will have.

What areas do you see having the biggest need in the future?

CS: Workforce, workforce, workforce. SCMEP works with manufacturing companies of all sizes and industries around the state. The No. 1 issue is identifying and recruiting a sustainable workforce. Companies are now thinking of out-of-the-box solutions for how they recruit and retain their workforce. We see more companies moving towards a virtual/augmented reality training method to recruit younger workers, which in turn has a higher learning retention rate compared to traditional training methods.

What is SCMEP doing to help meet the future needs of the industry?

CS: SCMEP is vetting future needs of South Carolina’s manufacturers and identifying resources that will bring bottom- and top-line improvements to the manufacturing community. We are benchmarking what the top original equipment manufacturers around the globe are doing and determining what best practices/technologies can help small- to medium-size manufacturing companies in South Carolina. The main goal is to find resources at the right price to assist companies in adopting the technology.

How is SCMEP addressing the widening skills gap?

CS: SCMEP acts as a conduit to the Department of Commerce, other state agencies, community colleges, and universities on current needs in the marketplace. We also lead the “Manufacturing Day” initiative for the state. This national initiative has been designed to expand knowledge about and improve the perception of manufacturing careers and manufacturing’s value to the North American economy. It is a chance for manufacturers to open their doors to students and parents, enabling them to see firsthand what advanced manufacturing looks like.

Where does SCMEP receive funding from?

CS: SCMEP receives funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce, South Carolina Department of Commerce, and fees from client projects. SCMEP also has key partnerships with the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce, several South Carolina technical colleges, Clemson University, several economic developers, and a number of workforce development boards. We also have an extensive network of third-party providers that delivers approximately 80 percent of our projects around the state.

What types of workshops does SCMEP offer to companies and their executives?

CS: In addition to on-site consulting services, SCMEP offers a wide range of courses and workshops, from continuous improvement (Lean Six Sigma), leadership and soft skills development, supply chain, quality management systems, environmental health and safety, and technical skills, among others. SCMEP offers customer-requested or current industry topic training. We held 131 open enrollments around the state during our last fiscal year, which ended in June. SCMEP also offers a network for manufacturing executives called Insight. The Insight Network provides executives with the opportunity to collaborate with peers to share ideas, solve problems, and navigate the obstacles of running a business. Through monthly half-day sessions, members work face-to-face to sharpen skills and improve organizational performance. Events typically include a combination of training sessions, focused problem-solving, guest speakers, product demonstrations, and plant tours.

SCMEP offers a Competitiveness Review. What is it? 

CS: Developed by SCMEP, the Competitiveness Review is a comprehensive, on-site evaluation of a company’s operations that both appraises capabilities and gauges the effectiveness of business systems. There is no cost to South Carolina manufacturing companies and it represents a $5,500 value. It reveals (or confirms) the company’s limiting factors and provides a snapshot comparison to other companies. The assessment delivers a road map to improve competitiveness, performance, and the bottom line.

What types of companies typically seek out help from SCMEP?

CS: SCMEP works with all size companies and industry sectors, which is what makes us unique. We have worked with one-employee companies to the major OEMs around the state. In the past, our “sweet spot” has been working with companies with 100 to 500 employees. This past year, SCMEP worked with 105 companies that had under 20 employees. We expect this number to climb in the next few years.

During your time with SCMEP, what has the organization accomplished for manufacturing companies in South Carolina?  

CS: SCMEP is becoming the No. 1 resource for the manufacturing community. We worked with 508 companies and completed 695 projects during our last fiscal year. All companies that engage in projects with SCMEP are surveyed to demonstrate both quantitative and qualitative impacts. These impacts convey how we help improve performance and achieve goals. Measured quarterly, and reported annually, client companies are surveyed by NIST [National Institute of Standards and Technology] through an independent third-party organization. During 2017, SCMEP had a $2.45 billion impact to the state. A W.E. Upjohn Institute report released in March showed that for every dollar given to the national MEP system, $14.5 is returned to the U.S. Treasury. SCMEP has consistently been one of the top-performing MEP centers in the U.S. in the area of new and retained sales.

For more information, visit scmep.org.

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