In May, the Maryland Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) held the first of a series of Cheers to Gears events, which are designed to provide an informal setting for companies to meet and learn from their Maryland counterparts. The kickoff Cheers to Gears, held at Mobern Lighting Co. in Jessup, included a facility tour followed by networking.

“We are very excited about the Cheers to Gears series … as we see it providing an excellent venue for manufacturers to share, network and learn about other manufacturers in the state and hopefully create new opportunities and relationships,” said Mike Kelleher, COO/CFO of the Maryland MEP.

The series is part of the Maryland MEP’s larger “Make It in Maryland,” a program designed to raise the level of awareness of manufacturing in Maryland by highlighting companies, products and capabilities to provide opportunities for business-to-business engagement.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the highest numbers of manufacturing jobs in the state are in the computer and electronic products industry, food manufacturing and chemical manufacturing.

Finding Good People

Bob Claire, Mobern’s general manager, said he was pleased to host the initial Cheers to Gears event. He spoke to the group as they gathered in the showroom and training center. Mobern manufactures and distributes energy-efficient lighting fixtures and solutions. Other Maryland manufacturers at the inaugural Cheers to Gears included Tenax, Tulkolf, Mid-Atlantic RF Systems and iDim, among others.

The discussion centered, in part, around advancing initiatives at the state and local level to encourage businesses to source products and services from other Maryland-based businesses. Mobern has been working to increase its presence in the state, and Claire and other Mobern executives said they hope regular networking and support from MEP will help galvanize Maryland manufacturers.

Mobern has been in Howard County since 1957. During the past few years, Mobern has doubled its workforce and increased sales by more than 100%. The company’s growth is largely attributable to local projects involving Maryland institutions, federal and state agencies and commercial/industrial building owners.

“The No.1 issue for us is finding good people and retaining them,” said Claire. “We’re an organization of people. Our products cannot be sold without people building them.”

Mobern has also been a partner with MEP’s Manufacturing Boot Camp, a training program that then places participants in jobs with local manufacturing companies. “Our facility is offered as a starting point and a stepping stone of people looking for a career path,” said Claire.

Boost Manufacturing

Leaders in the manufacturing sector expressed hope that the energy surrounding Cheers to Gears would lead to a boost for the manufacturing sector in the entire state. “Maryland has not seen a gain in manufacturing for decades,” said Mike Galiazzo, executive director of the Regional Manufacturing Institute (RMI). “We continue to lose companies.”

Founded in 1990, the RMI is a nonprofit association created for manufacturers in the Baltimore area. Currently, the association represents the interests of manufacturers statewide by providing programs, services and advocacy.

Finding employees might well be a challenge, Galiazzo said, but the larger challenge is stopping companies from leaving the state. “We need to give them what they need to grow: a business-friendly environment. Finding workers does not trump staying in business.”

And the image of manufacturing needs to be updated and more accurate, he said. “People need to understand what the world of work looks like. The poor image of manufacturing explains why public policymakers have not made manufacturing a priority. Manufacturing should be a priority for Maryland economic development because it’s the pathway from poverty to prosperity.

“Our state’s economy is not going to be well off five years from now,” Galiazzo said, “if we keep applying the same strategy toward manufacturing that we are today.”

A Stronger Voice

Phil Tulkoff, president of Tulkoff Food Products, of Baltimore, agreed with Galiazzo that manufacturers in Maryland could use a more business-friendly environment. Tulkoff also attended Cheers to Gears and said he found the event to be a good way to meet other manufacturers.

“Even if another manufacturer isn’t in your particular product line, they might be doing something of interest to you,” he said. “We can trade ideas about labor and taxes.”

Unfortunately, he said, there are fewer manufacturers in Maryland than there could be.

“It’s relatively expensive to do business in Maryland,” he said.

Galiazzo stressed that the public and policymakers need to pay attention to manufacturing. “We’re standing here and allowing manufacturing to leave us,” he said. “Policymakers talk about cybersecurity. They talk about biosecurity. Young people — and the parents of those young people — aren’t even considering manufacturing.”