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Nicolet College - Consortium brings together Nortwhoods manufacturers

Manufacturing Consortium fuels
Northwoods economic development

There was a time when manufacturing professionals in Wisconsin's rural Northwoods had little opportunity to network with each other. Sure, there were national professional organizations that many of them belonged to, but really not many structured activities on the local level.

Manufacturing ConsortiumAll that changed nine years ago when Jim Brown and Don Roberts from Nicolet Area Technical College invited together a handful of Northwoods manufacturing leaders. Brown and Roberts wanted to see if there was interest in forming a local professional group to promote and improve the manufacturing environment in the region.

Today, that handful has grown to more than 100 individuals who participate in a wide variety of activities sponsored by the Northwoods Manufacturing Consortium.

"It's safe to say that there's been a great response to the consortium," said Brown, Nicolet's vice president of instruction who, not by coincidence, has a long history of promoting manufacturing during his 29 years in the Wisconsin Technical College System. "The consortium has become a great forum for manufacturing professionals to get together to network, to determine as a group what their training and professional development needs are, and to work together to find solutions to common issues they face in their day-to-day operations."

The consortium is driven by a 18-member steering committee that meets monthly to identify needs and then plan activities to meet those needs. Three times a year the consortium holds dinners for the general membership. These events feature a keynote speaker of state or national manufacturing prominence and also tours of area manufacturing facilities.

In the early days Nicolet's Don Roberts wasn't exactly sure what the response was going to be to the tours, considering that some members were competitors. The whole issue of revealing trade secrets by letting the competition into your plant was always in the back of their minds.

"What we found was that the more manufacturers opened their doors, the more comfortable everyone became," said Roberts, special projects coordinator at Nicolet. "It didn't take that long before they started helping each other. They became comfortable with picking up the phone to find the answer to anything they had a question about."

Today the benefits of the consortium have extended well beyond the individual facilities.

"Overall economic development and community growth have always been very important to the consortium," said Thom Umlauf, a founding consortium member with Superior Diesel in Rhinelander. "The consortium is a very worthwhile organization. A lot of the credit for that needs to go to Nicolet College, which over the years has been the glue that has held everything together."