New report highlights small-scale manufacturers in Milwaukee

A new report from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation highlights the rise of small-scale manufacturers in the city.

The report, titled “State of Urban Manufacturing: Milwaukee Snapshot,” is being released today. It’s part of an ongoing research project from the Urban Manufacturing Alliance, a national coalition that performs targeted research on manufacturing in urban areas.

Milwaukee is the third of six cities being profiled, after Philadelphia and Detroit.

Report authors note that Milwaukee was built on manufacturing, and the city’s economy is still largely driven by businesses in this sector. They say manufacturing was the second-largest employer in the city in 2015, and those jobs paid the highest share of total wages for any sector, at $7.42 billion.

After interviewing and surveying more than 100 local manufacturers, report authors say many small-scale manufacturers are gaining ground alongside the city’s biggest players.

Close to 61 percent of firms surveyed had fewer than 10 employees, and about one third all started in 2013. A further 56 percent have been founded since 2001.

Surveyed firms said their top three biggest barriers to growth are: reaching new customers, finding qualified employees and gaining access to capital.

“Smaller firms and bigger, legacy manufacturers alike are what fortify Milwaukee’s economy, and we hope this report helps policymakers and other local stakeholders plot out new programs to help these businesses prosper,” said Katy Stanton, program director at the Urban Manufacturing Alliance.

Most surveyed firms — 94 percent — expect to expand in the next two years, while 58 percent said they expect to be “significantly larger” by the end of that time.

And about half of firms with fewer than 10 employees are selling products nationally or internationally.

Report authors say “more partnerships are needed between government and economic development practitioners in Milwaukee to help newer manufacturers grow.”

They also note some challenges for early-stage manufacturing companies. Nearly 91 percent of firms founded after 2007 said they relied on their own money to start the business. And only 11 percent were able to get bank loans when they first began.

“As the Foundation continues its work to improve access to employment opportunities and advance economic inclusion, the knowledge from this report will offer insight into a portion of the local economy that is full of potential but not fully understood,” said Marcus White, vice president for civic engagement at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

The report includes recommendations for city officials and local stakeholders, to help manufacturers deal with challenges as they arise.

“With more small-scale manufacturers working to bring innovation and local production processes to the city of Milwaukee, this new report captures what these entrepreneurs need today to grow alongside the city economy,” report authors said.