By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — We all have stories to tell.
And the stories of business success will be the key to economic development in Dunn County, said Mark Tyler, president and Chief Executive Officer of OEM Fabricators out of Woodville.
Tyler was the keynote speaker at the Dunn County Economic Development Corporation’s annual meeting January 22 at the Stout Ale House.
In addition to being the founder and president of OEM Fabricators (a contract manufacturer), he is the president of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board.
Tyler’s other recent board and council service include chair of the West Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board; chair of Manufacturing Works/Gold Collar Careers; Family Resource Center Chippewa Valley; UW-River Falls Chancellor’s Advisory Committee; and the state Superintendent’s Technology and Engineering Education Advisory Committee.
“What is our story?” Tyler asked the assembled crowd of business owners, local elected officials and members of the DCEDC board.
The DCEDC’s website focuses on a variety of positive factors related to Dunn County, including the proximity to markets, the quality of life, the good educational system, available real estate, tourism and commitment to economic development, he noted.
Tyler said that a recent experience related to economic development in other areas — Hampton Roads in southeast Virginia and the Savannah River Region in Georgia — unfortunately revealed the same features: proximity to markets, the quality of life, the good educational system, available real estate, tourism and commitment to economic development.
“They all talk about the same things,” Tyler said.
The question is: what can Dunn County do differently to distinguish itself from other economic development regions? he asked.
“What is our Shreddies story?” Tyler asked.
Tyler was referring to a TED talk video by advertising expert Rory Sutherland that had been shown a few minutes earlier in which a Canadian cereal company had “rebranded” their cereal from little squares to little diamonds.
The cereal remained unchanged, but instead of picturing it as squares, the squares on the packages were rotated to become diamond shapes, and the cereal was advertised as Diamond Shreddies.
Volunteers were brought in to sample and compare the “square” Shreddies to the “diamond” Shreddies, which was really the exact same cereal.
People said they liked the diamonds better.
Although the Shreddies example is ridiculous, “it was clearly effective,” Tyler said.
Dunn County needs to adjust the economic development focus to make itself different from other areas, he said.
Economic growth in Dunn County should focus on economic drivers rather than economic followers, Tyler said.
Economic drivers include manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and education — all businesses that create wealth and have a “big echo effect in the economy,” he said.
Economic followers, such as health care, banking, insurance and retail services, should not be the focus of economic development, Tyler said.
Before the “follower industries” can be developed, “we need to grow the population first,” he said.
Follower industries redistribute wealth and have little echo effect in the economy, he said.
“They do not grow the pie. They redistribute the pie,” Tyler said.
The stories of business success in Dunn County will encourage entrepreneurs to start companies, Tyler said.
“We need to figure out how to tell the stories to Dunn County that starting a company is okay … we need to tell the stories about people who have already done it,” he said.
“Story telling can really drive start-ups,” Tyler said.
One of OEM Fabricators business success stories is that the company is now working on a project with technical colleges and high schools to create what Tyler called a “manufacturing pathway.”
Manufacturing equipment is installed in a high school for the technology education area, and a curriculum is developed so that students can learn how to operate the equipment.
By the time students become seniors, they would be working 20 hours a week at OEM and the company also would cover the technical school tuition for students to earn a manufacturing degree, Tyler said.
In the last several years, OEM spent $2.1 million to hire between 300 and 400 people, he said.
That works out to be about $6,000 per person.
When students graduate from a technical college with the degree necessary to work at OEM, the company will have spent $4,500 per person, Tyler said.
“It’s a substantial savings, and we end up with a trained person rather than going to the employment market,” he said.
An advanced machinist earns $75,000 per year, which translates into a $2.6 million multiplier impact on the local economy, Tyler said.
Using the kind of manufacturing pathway Tyler described, OEM would save over a half million dollars on hiring 350 employees.
Mechanical engineers earn $100,000 a year, and each mechanical engineer requires five to ten employees in supporting roles, Tyler said.
A company in New Richmond will need 20 mechanical engineers in the next five years but is having difficulty finding them, he said.
“They should be banging on Chancellor Sorensen’s door (at UW-Stout),” Tyler said.
Stout would be competing with other universities in the state, however, and would need the support of the community and the Dunn County Economic Development Corporation to produce the mechanical engineers needed, Tyler said.
About half of OEM’s management employees are UW-Stout graduates and were interns at the company, he noted.
“They come, and they don’t go away … more than half of the interns stay long-term,” he said.
Of the employees at OEM Fabricators, 80 percent have a technical school degree; 13 percent hold a university degree; and five percent hold a graduate degree. Only two percent of the positions can be filled by someone with a high school degree, Tyler said.
The roles of Dunn County Economic Development will be to create a talent pipeline for businesses; to tell the stories of business success; and to have an understanding of business needs, Tyler said.
“Workforce development is economic development right now,” he said.
In Dunn County, more people are leaving the workforce, mostly through retirement, than there are people entering the workforce, Tyler said.
“We need to develop new stories and to work in different ways,” he said.
“I would like to see Dunn County as a model of how economic development is done … in the future, I would like people to ask, ‘what happened in Dunn County to make business explode?’” Tyler said.
Peer to peer
The number one career aspiration of middle school students is to be a professional athlete, Tyler noted.
“We have to tell them they have a one in zero chance of doing that,” he said.
Parents, teachers and business owners need to do a better job of telling middle school and high school students what is possible and what can be realistically achieved, Tyler said.
After recent visits to talk with high school students about career options, one guidance counselor asked, “don’t you have anyone without gray hair?” Tyler related.
So, OEM switched to recent college and technical school graduates to talk to high school students, he said.
Those who are doing presentations to high school students also have started talking about what “$50,000 a year can get you,” Tyler said.
Students who are under the impression they will be professional athletes making millions of dollars a year do not think $50,000 a year sounds like very much money, he said.
“We need to do a better job of telling them what they can do with $50,000,” Tyler said.
“Maybe we should not be afraid to tell kids (their fantasy) won’t work out. We need more honesty,” he said.
Talking to high school students about career options is one way to spread the stories of business success.
When asked how those stories could be presented to the public at large or to people who might be in a position to start a business, Tyler did not have a ready answer.