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Kathie Leonard is president and CEO of Auburn Manufacturing, and a member of the board of  trustees for the Maine Community College System.

Auburn Manufacturing Inc. is one of the 75 Maine entities that recently signed the Maine Workforce Development Compact with the Maine Community College System. We’re excited to get started with a project to help restore a sustainable manufacturing workforce here in Maine.  

We survived COVID-19 as an “essential” industrial textile manufacturer, but like many other essential manufacturers, we may not survive post-COVID if we can’t keep up with increased demand for our products in a recovering economy. We can’t afford to miss this opportunity, but we need a stable, skilled workforce. Our state legislators obviously agree, as they recently approved $35 million to go to the community college system for workforce development.  

Located in central Maine, my company has been making heat-resistant textiles for heavy industry (shipbuilding and repair, transportation, energy production, etc.) for more than four decades. Management and production workers alike had previously worked at companies that made textiles, shoes, paper, chemicals, etc. We drew upon the region’s rich manufacturing experience to get started: fiber and coating knowledge; textile yarn and fabric design and production; coating and finishing capabilities; and fabrication skills, such as sewing and quilting.

Founded by two people with one product, we built the company incrementally by hiring skilled people who helped build a 50-person team that makes hundreds of products that save energy and solve heat and fire issues throughout the world.  

AMI’s tag line is “Innovation on Fire” because we know that improvements to the status quo are essential to survival in an ever-changing world. Our innovation process starts by listening to our  markets, followed by a team process for developing a new product or improving an existing one. The team aspect of the process is key to moving forward. Varied skills — mechanical, scientific, mathematical, communication — are all critical to making the process work. In the words of the late Lee Iacocca: “In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words: people, product, and profits.” We note that  “people” is the most important of the three words.

Sadly, over the past two decades, more emphasis was on the third word in that sentence: profits.  

We’ve seen the damage to our nation due to offshoring of operations for quick gains. We lost millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs with health and retirement benefits. With the loss of those workers, we also lost a huge amount of institutional knowledge needed to fuel the innovation process. The most recent example of the damage done by offshoring to China was the shortage of personal protective equipment during the pandemic. Many U.S. companies struggled to pivot quickly, and it was painful. We had to start largely from scratch again.

That should be a wake-up call to us all that we need to rebuild an American industrial base and do it soon.  

That is why we’re so excited to be part of this well-funded effort to train people in basic manufacturing skills at Maine’s community colleges. While the textile industry is much smaller today in Maine, there are several good companies in the state making highly specialized textile products critical to the  industrial base, including shipbuilding and repair, automotive and aerospace. Our customers prefer or are required to buy American products to meet government requirements. That means more American workers are needed to step up and join our teams.

With the help of Maine’s community college and the proper funding in place, we believe the time has come for us to prove that Maine is still a state known for its high-quality products made by highly skilled Maine people. Let’s get started!