Shawn Wright| Crain’s Custom Media

The widening talent and skills gap in Michigan’s manufacturing sector continues to remain a major focal point for those in the industry.

A range of factors is in play to produce more talented skilled-trades workers, such as getting K-12 students interested in this type of education and fields. But there also are a lot of people in the current workforce who are underemployed and who, with some training and skills, could have much more productive jobs.

Topics such as the talent and skills gap, sustainability, globalization, and the necessity for innovation will be on display June 9-12 during the inaugural Big M conference. The event is SME’s brainchild.

On June 12, the conference will specifically focus on education workforce and training. Discussions will include various talent strategies. But the issue will be woven throughout the four-day event, held at Cobo Center in Detroit.

“They talk about raising the minimum wage, which is fine,” said Debbie Holton, director of events and industry strategy for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. “But with a six-week, six-month or two-year education in a technical field, they could be making three times the minimum wage. It’s really about lucrative, creative jobs and reaching out to young people.”

She said that the cutting-edge manufacturing jobs are not repetitive and mundane, as conventional wisdom might dictate.

“These are great jobs, good careers that folks can enjoy. We want to make sure we get that message out really clear,” Holton said. “Advanced manufacturing is not necessarily clipping the windshield wipers on at the end of the assembly line. It’s really about the design, manufacture and all of the automation that is in modern manufacturing.”

As Michigan’s manufacturing sector continues to make a post-recession resurgence, the importance for in-depth and concentrated discussions is even greater. Nearly 14,000 manufacturing establishments in the state produce everything from cars and trucks to furniture, medical devices, and military hardware, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. As one of Michigan’s largest sectors, manufacturing accounts for nearly 14 percent of the state’s total non-farm employment, making it the fourth-highest concentration in the country.

“SME saw a need, specifically in this region but also in the manufacturing industry as a whole, to bring the leaders together and work on some of the challenges that they’re facing right now,” Holton said. “Manufacturing is very important to our local, regional and national economy.”

Holton expects about 5,000 professionals from Michigan and the Great Lakes states to attend. Other manufacturing areas to be highlighted during the conference will be new technologies, such as 3D printing, cybersecurity and supply chain, among others.

Holton said the Big M, two years in the making, will connect people with technology and expertise. The goal is to affirm the industry’s importance and provide a powerful and unified voice to industry and education policymakers about the issues facing manufacturers today, according to SME. The event is designed as a springboard for organizations and potential new partnerships in business.

Industry leaders such as Ford Motor Co., General Electric Co., Siemens, Dow Chemical Co., Dell Inc. and Steelcase Inc. will be represented at the conference. But so will hundreds of other manufacturers.

“We always love to talk about the big companies. But at the heart of manufacturing are the small- and mid-size businesses,” Holton said. “They drive the manufacturing industry.”

The exposition and conference will offer hands-on and interactive learning experiences, Holton said. In addition to numerous conference sessions, the Big M will offer one-on-one consultations, collaborative opportunities, and gathering spaces on the exhibit floor to encourage interaction between attendees, exhibitors and industry leaders.

“It really is a dynamic exchange of ideas, technology and innovation. They’re not going to just walk down a trade-show aisle with a bag, take it back to their office and set it behind their desk,” Holton said. “I want folks to think that this is not just an event, but the beginning of a movement.”

For more information and registration, visit

Share On