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Taking on ‘Tough’ Challenges in Manufacturing

Alan Rooks
By Alan Rooks Editor in Chief, Manufacturing Engineering

One of the truisms about manufacturing today is that manufacturers have a difficult time finding and keeping skilled workers and developing diverse workforces. It’s one of the things I mentioned in my July column. I was happy to receive a different perspective from Nancy Gold, president of Tough Traveler Ltd., Schenectady, N.Y., one of the few remaining U.S.-based design/manufacturing companies in the bag, pack, luggage, and pouch manufacturing industry.

“I’ve just seen your ‘Tried and True Won’t Do’ editorial in Manufacturing Engineering, and I thought I’d tell you a bit about Tough Traveler,” she wrote. “We have never had a problem finding skilled workers, or teaching untrained people to become skilled workers, and we have never had a non-diverse workforce. We have been in business in upstate New York for decades, and our workforce has varied over the years, but it has always remained diverse and we’ve always had skilled employees.”

Like other U.S. manufacturers facing competition from imports, Tough Traveler has had to fight back against the perception that the market it operates in is based only on foreign-made products.

“It is too bad that most U.S. retailers prefer imports to U.S.-made textile products, as U.S. manufacturing in the textile field has much to offer; in the case of our company, we offer well-made products, excellence in designs, sustainably-made products, support of employment in the U.S., and the opportunity to have designs and production when they are needed in the U.S.,” said Gold.

Tough Traveler makes a line of standard products as well as custom products for a variety of customers. “Some want a product we made 35 years ago (and we still have the pattern!) Others may have an idea in mind and want to see it to fruition.”

I was curious about how Tough Traveler could succeed in maintaining a skilled, diverse workforce when so many other U.S. manufacturers are struggling with that issue, so I wrote back to Nancy, asking her about the “secrets of their success.”

“I think it’s a combination of upstate New York’s long history of textile industry manufacturing, good teachers and schools in our area, an infrastructure that’s pretty good, General Electric and then successful offshoot companies’ presence (lots of engineers), fair labor and housing [policies], easy travel to New York City, and an area that has been very friendly and conducive to immigration,” among other reasons.

She noted that upstate New York lost much of its manufacturing base when importing grew about 30 years ago, but that Tough Traveler is still a resource for people in the area as well as customers worldwide. “We have remained pretty flexible and we have many excellent employees who have been willing to learn, and we have put resources into inventing and introducing new products in our field.”

That’s good news in a year when we really need some. Stay tough, Tough Traveler!

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