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My Vision for MEP: Putting People First

In April 2015, I had the honor of being named as the Director of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). Being a former small manufacturer and having worked in the small business development arena for more than 30 years, this new role invigorates my passion for U.S. manufacturing. It’s been an exciting and busy time since I’ve started this venture, and I am now fortunate enough to lead an extraordinary team of individuals who are working tirelessly to support our manufacturers nationwide.

For more than 26 years, MEP has helped small and mid-sized manufacturers become more innovative, profitable and globally competitive. Our MEP centers around the country are helping companies with everything from process improvement and supply chain optimization, to exporting and new product development. However, MEP is more than a list of programs and services; MEP is a champion of manufacturers.

In thinking about everything we do for U.S. companies, I suppose I could boil it down to one thing – helping people, those who own businesses and work in the manufacturing industry. As the new Director of MEP, my vision is simple: expand and build upon our programs and services so that we can reach more and do a better job of assisting the people who work in U.S. manufacturing.

Looking Beyond the Numbers

Since 1988, MEP has worked with nearly 80,000 manufacturers, leading to $88 billion in sales and $14 billion in cost savings, and it has helped create more than 729,000 jobs. While these numbers are impressive, they don’t paint the entire picture.

U.S. manufacturers are the most creative and innovative organizations in the world! From apparel, furniture, metals and plastics, to medical devices and electronics, we create it all. Manufacturing doesn't just enable our everyday lives; manufacturing transforms our everyday lives. American products keep us safe. American products make our lives more convenient.

But manufacturing is about more than the products we use. Manufacturing is fundamentally about the people who create these products and their stories. We can expand our thinking about manufacturers as more than just “companies where people work.” Manufacturers are more than just facilities filled with equipment. Manufacturers are comprised of great people, each with their own story to share.

To me, MEP didn’t just help U.S. manufacturers create 729,000 jobs. MEP helped 729,000 people – our parents, children, siblings, neighbors, and friends – find their careers.

Why These Stories Matter

There is a company located in Pueblo West, Colorado named GPS Source. From an outside perspective, the organization appears to be a small company that specializes in the design and production of GPS re-transmission units. GPS units are what the company produces, but it isn’t their story.

GPS is veteran-owned, and I have had the privilege of meeting Douglas Hinkley, the Director of Operations of GPS Source. Hinkley also serves as a Lt. Colonel in the Army National Guard. Their re-transmission units play a vital role in supporting our troops. For example, their systems outfitted the first striker brigades in Iraq and are used in C-17 aircrafts for aerial supplies, allowing planes to drop important resources such as water and blood supplies to soldiers within 50 meters of their location. Notably, the technology is used by the Navy Seals and was actually utilized during the mission that found Osama Bin Laden. You can read more about how the company worked with our Colorado Center, Manufacturer’s Edge (f/k/a CAMT) here.

Another interesting tidbit – their company culture is relaxed and fun. They have jukeboxes and candy galore at their facility, and their workers are personable and have “inside jokes.” GPS Source is more than a business that produces GPS units – they support our military… while loving what they do and eating lots of candy. There is a difference between what they manufacture and who they are.

I would encourage you to read the more than 1,000 success stories of the manufacturers who MEP has worked with here.

My Journey Here

I’m a person who’s passionate about manufacturing… and people.

Earlier in my career, I worked for QVC, that’s right, the cable television shopping channel! I traveled the country negotiating product deals with over 23,000 U.S. inventors and small manufacturers. It was amazing getting to experience the ideas and vast array of products from entrepreneurs from all corners of the U.S. More important, it was remarkable to meet the people behind the products.

Then I came to work for MEP from 2000-2012, where I served in numerous roles for the Program Development and Marketing and Communications Offices. Witnessing the power of public-private partnerships and MEP’s impact on manufacturers was truly rewarding. Prior to being selected as the MEP Director, I served as the Associate Administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Office of Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) where I lead a network of organizations that annually provided business assistance to over 600,000 small businesses across the country.

Throughout my career, I have had opportunities to meet countless manufacturers. I have seen so many businesses work hard to realize their dreams, and I have always wanted to be on the side that helps. That is what brought me here today and who I want to be.

The Next Steps for MEP

My vision for MEP is to do more than just help manufacturers become more profitable and competitive, it’s to celebrate their people and share their stories of success. We can show companies how to make their products in the best possible way, and cultivate a positive company culture. Small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) represent almost 99% of manufacturing in the U.S., and we want to help them grow. MEP will achieve this by:

  • Broadening its services to help manufacturers find the best people and connect them with good training programs
  • Develop key relationships with new entities, public and private, on the federal, state and local levels that will add to the products and services offered by MEP Centers
  • Focus on technology to develop new product and production capabilities that offer new opportunities for companies interested in growing and expanding into new markets
  • Emphasizing the importance of U.S. manufacturing to the public through initiatives such as National Manufacturing Day that will attract younger people to the manufacturing workforce.

I look forward to working with the wonderful people here at MEP as we work together to support U.S. manufacturers nationwide. Together, we will strive to help companies achieve prosperity and let the country know that manufacturing is about the people!

About the author

Carroll Thomas

Ms. Carroll A. Thomas, recently named National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Acting Associate Director of Innovation and Industry Services also serves as the Director of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).  In addition to the MEP program, Ms. Thomas also provides senior leadership for the NIST Office of Advanced Manufacturing, Baldrige Performance Excellence Program and the Technology Partnerships Office.  For the past 5 years her efforts have mainly focused on the MEP National Network™ which  helps U.S. manufacturers compete globally by strengthening supply chains and helping them access new technology. MEP, with its $146 million federal budget and matched private investment, is a $300 million public-private partnership leveraging federal support by teaming with industry as well as state and local organizations to be the go-to resource for U.S. manufacturers. With over 400 manufacturing extension offices located in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, MEP services provide measurable  enhance growth, improve productivity and expand capacity.

With more than 30 years of entrepreneurial and small business development experience, her accomplished public/ private sector career demonstrates her leadership expertise as a catalyst for creating innovative partnerships and advocating economic development by supporting dynamic innovation ecosystems.

Ms. Thomas is a graduate of Leadership Washington and a former Regional Director of the Fashion Group International of Greater Washington, DC. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Drexel University in Design and a Master of Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University in International Business.

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Bravo! As someone who's been with a regional MEP Center for more than 13 years, this is a great vision for MEP's future. In the past two days I've met with five manufacturers in our region -- with those companies and with all the others, it's about the people -- they are the ones making the sales, products, and economic difference in their communities. It's an honor to work with them and to help them grow.
Great entry, Carroll! I love your focus about the people of manufacturing - it's about time we start talking about the PEOPLE!
What an inspiring story? I have been with an MEP Center for 8 years serving in a marketing role. My interaction with manufacturers has always been about the people and the wonderful and creative products they make that make the U.S. great. Looking forward to a new future for manufacturing!
It is so refreshing to read about the importance of the *people* in the manufacturing industry. Thank you for this important entry!
What an informative and surprisingly touching post! It can be too easy to be caught up in the global economics of manufacturing, but Carroll Thomas's new vision hasn't lost sight of what's really important in U.S. Manufacturing- the people!! Great piece!
I agree, U.S. manufacturing has always been about the people. Great piece!
Carroll, you have a great perspective on U.S. manufacturing. You will be an extraordinary leader at MEP!
Congratulations Carroll - California MEP supports you! LETS DO THIS!
YES! So many businesses are only focused on the bottom line in manufacturing. It is great that you are focused on what really matters- and that's the people. Great to learn about your point of view!
Equally so, many lose sight that Lean Manufacturing is supposed to have people as one of the pillars. Its about the people first, then when the numbers come, they will be sustainable.
First of all congratulations on your new position. You have a wonderful opportunity to help MEP recognize their greatest asset - people. Fostering healthy, committed relationships with the statewide SME network must to be the primary focus. Your challenge is to emphasize true partnerships, to eliminate the redundancy if resources and training offerings. Privately held SME's are weary of offers high return ROI through operational improvement training and new employee recruitment. Driving change takes a strong commitment from all parties including your leadership team, the national MEP network and state/local partners and owners of SME's Commitment to workforce development through on-line coursework, apprenticeship and OJT training, middle school student/parent tours will help to attract innovative people to manufacturing industries.
Great work! This article really opens us to what is important about manufacturing-the people behind it! It was interesting to read about Carroll's journey and what brought her to where she is today.

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