By Scott Faingold
As director of the Office of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Springfield, Mike Farmer has no illusions. “An overall decrease in manufacturing is the case everywhere,” he says. “It’s a historical trend and probably irreversible. Still, I think Springfield is a very desirable place for manufacturing, and have felt that for a long time. I think we have a good foundation of manufacturers in Springfield. Obviously we’re not like Decatur, Peoria or some of our other peer cities but we’re different in the sense that we are a retailing, health care hub.”
Farmer acknowledges that an increasing prevalence of both automation and offshore plants has contributed to a decline in manufacturing jobs, but there is another side of the employment coin. “The Illinois Manufacturers Association has stated that it’s difficult to find qualified employees,” he says. “I think there’s a perception of manufacturing that it’s just guys in a ditch or something – a dirty, low-education, low-skill sector of the economy, which in fact it’s not anymore. It’s fairly sophisticated and there is a great deal of training required for certain jobs, depending on the skill set.
“Springfield has a rich manufacturing tradition,” Farmer continues. “Obviously, certain things relocated or shifted with respect to both political and economic trends – in the same way, back in the post-Civil War days, a lot of the textile industries in the Northeast went to the Southeast for cheaper labor and to be closer to the cotton, if you will. Later a lot of those went offshore to Mexico or China or India, those types of things, so those kinds of trends occur and Springfield feels those trends, certainly.”
There is one major liability facing Springfield, according to Farmer. “I don’t know how you overcome it, but a lot of our county is undermined and there is not the desire for certain manufacturers to locate very expensive facilities over an undermined area.” Another barrier is the overall state business climate, which he points out tends to discourage manufacturing with high workers compensation, among other issues.
Looking forward, Farmer considers creativity the key to future manufacturing in Springfield. “What’s required are new technologies, new processes, new products that can be made here,” he says, suggesting that potential areas of innovation could include health care products and pharmaceuticals. “As the economy recovers and the headwinds soften, I’m optimistic about manufacturing in Springfield.”