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How The Pandemic Recession Is Affecting The Manufacturing Industry

LISA WINTON: Hi. I'm Lisa Winton, and I am one of the owners of Winton Machine Company located in Suwanee, Ga. We're about 25 minutes north of metro Atlanta.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Lisa Winton is one of our American Indicators, people representing different parts of the economy who we will follow in the coming months as the pandemic recession fades or stretches on. We'll look at how the economy performs through their eyes, through their personal experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

SHAPIRO: Lisa and her husband George started Winton Machine Company more than 20 years ago.

WINTON: Kind of one of those homegrown businesses - started in our basement.

SHAPIRO: Her background is in business. He's an engineer. And today they have about 38 employees making the machines that let their customers form tubular parts for products. Those parts can go into everything from the Mars rover to missile defense systems.

WINTON: You think about a refrigerator. In the back of a refrigerator, you'd have a serpentine coil used for heat transfer. It could be you're sitting out at the pool. It could be your lawn chair that you're sitting on has bent tubing.

SHAPIRO: She gave us a Zoom tour of her business the other day.

WINTON: This is our manufacturing facility.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

SHAPIRO: The factory floor is a huge, high-ceilinged space full of half-built machinery, mammoth spools of copper and rows and rows of shelving stuffed full of metal parts. About 20 masked workers are spread out across the space.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. We can pull this back out and...

WINTON: We build our machines here. We do everything pretty much on site. So we have engineers on site, and we do...

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

SHAPIRO: Sounds like Godzilla is on the other side of the factory floor (laughter).

WINTON: I don't know what they're doing today, but it's loud. And so what this machine's going to do is it's going to make safety rails for the tops of buildings.

SHAPIRO: Right now many American businesses are struggling, but Winton Machine Company is actually doing really well. And Lisa went and told me a story that helps illustrate why.

WINTON: When the pandemic first hit, I thought, I guess I should stock up on some food. And I never had an extra refrigerator, an extra freezer. And so I said, well, I'm going to go get an extra freezer to stock up on things.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WINTON: I couldn't find one anywhere. And...

SHAPIRO: Really?

WINTON: I actually reached out to one of our customers who make them. And I said...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WINTON: Do you guys have any in production? Like, are they going to be hitting the stores? And they were just so far behind.

SHAPIRO: Did you get the hookup?

WINTON: I did not.

SHAPIRO: Oh, no (laughter).

Over the last year, Americans with money have spent less on travel or restaurants. And instead, they've bought a lot of stuff. Spending on durable goods was one of the brightest spots in the economy during 2020. People bought outdoor furniture and refrigerators, the kinds of things Lisa Winton's customers make. Still, according to jobs numbers that came out last week, more than half a million fewer people work in manufacturing right now than at the same time a year ago. Lisa Winton is actually trying to hire more employees right now. She is on the board of directors for the National Association of Manufacturers, so she has a perspective on this that goes beyond her own company in Georgia.

WINTON: Manufacturers across the country are having trouble filling positions.

SHAPIRO: Why is that?

WINTON: Because there is a huge skills gap in this country.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So just the fact that if you were fully staffed, you would have more workers now than before the pandemic is striking. And then the fact that you can't actually find people to fill those jobs is all the more remarkable.

WINTON: Now, I mean, manufacturers going into fourth quarter - a large number of manufacturers just went into overdrive. And it's not uncommon that they've gone into mandatory overtime and that they've really had to scale up.

SHAPIRO: You know, in this series, we are talking to people about food insecurity and about a wave of evictions and about hotels and restaurants that are struggling. And so how do you feel being in this industry that is kind of one of the few that's actually doing really well right now?

WINTON: I think it invigorates me even more to figure out, how as a nation can we really support the retraining efforts? - because we have the skills gap, and they're good-paying jobs. And then we have people who are looking for jobs but are not trained and skilled and educated.

SHAPIRO: There have been challenges this past year. Since the pandemic, she's had to shift workers' schedules across the day and night so fewer people will be on the factory floor for social distancing. She's thankful there haven't been too many of her employees that have gotten sick. But some of her customers are taking longer to pay for Winton's products.

WINTON: Where they normally would pay their bills in 30 days, now a lot of larger companies are saying, we're not paying for 60 or 75 days. So if you're a smaller company, you have to have cash flow.

SHAPIRO: She got a PPP loan to help with credit. There was a dry spell for a while, and then Congress passed another relief package late last year that pumped a bunch of money into the economy.

WINTON: They released all the funds at the same time, so everybody placed orders at the same time. So now the challenge is, how do you deliver all of those orders that were all placed at the same time?

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah. Because we hope to follow your story for the months ahead, can you tell us what you're hoping for in the immediate future?

WINTON: We're really hoping as a company to be able to grow our company and hire more people, further train the people that we have and improve our processes. And while we're doing that, we're hoping to continue to book more orders and gain more visibility out into the marketplace.

SHAPIRO: A hopeful outlook on this slice of the manufacturing economy from Lisa Winton of Winton Machine Company in Georgia.

And tomorrow, we will meet our next American Indicator - a housing lawyer in St. Louis who is staring down a tsunami of evictions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A tsunami is a, you know, a natural disaster that can't be prevented. Well, we can prevent this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 11, 2021 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of the summary for this report misspelled Suwanee, Ga., as Sewanee.