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Navigating the changing grant landscape

For the past year or so, many manufacturers have struggled to keep up and running, maintain staff, and adjust to the digital changes the pandemic required. Making these changes or funding a new project, like a digitalization effort, for example, can be expensive, but there are grants and funding available to help. Micki Vandeloo, president of Lakeview Consulting, returns to keep us up-to-date on the changing grant landscape for manufacturers.


Amanda Del Buono: Welcome back to Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce, as always, I'm Amanda Del Buono.

For the past year or so, many manufacturers have struggled to keep up and running, maintain staff, and adjust to the digital changes the pandemic required. Making these changes or funding a new project, like a digitalization effort, for example, can be expensive, but there are grants and funding available to help. Today, I'm excited to be joined by Micki Vandeloo, president of Lakeview Consulting, a consultancy that works with manufacturers, not-for-profits, and other organizations to help them obtain grants to support major projects and initiatives.

Micki was a guest on the show in April 2019, but a lot has changed since then. So, we wanted to follow up with her and see what has or hasn't changed and offer a reminder as to what funds are available for the asking. Thanks for being here today, Micki.

Micki Vandeloo: Well, thank you, Amanda. And it's so good to be back with your audience. I love talking about these subjects and you are exactly right. Things have changed greatly since we talked last in so many ways.

Amanda: Yeah. Last time you were here, you explained that manufacturers often don't know what's available to them in terms of grants and awards. Could you maybe just start by reminding our listeners what's available to them, especially as manufacturers are facing new challenges in light of the past year. What types of projects would qualify manufacturers for grants?

Micki: Sure. So, let's talk about, first of all, the changing landscape that COVID brought to the grant world. Because I can tell you that in my years of writing grants, which has over 10 years now, in the manufacturing sector, I have never seen a year that has been like this in terms of the grant landscape. And what I can tell you is that there are two ways that manufacturers can qualify for grants. Now, one of those is a way that could not be a qualification before COVID.

So, the traditional answer that I would give to your question is if manufacturers are in growth mode, if they are hiring people, if they are expanding their facilities, if they are purchasing equipment, and if they happen to be in a USDA qualified area, which is typically a rural community, a community under 15,000, which there are a lot of manufacturing companies in those towns. If they have a recycling effort, if they're producing product out of recycled materials, if they are engaging in some kind of very high-risk product development. If they have a new product that they're trialing out and they need to prove that concept, these are all indications that those manufacturers might qualify for grants.

But in the last, I would say 12 months, 12 to 16 months, the additional qualification is manufacturers that have experienced supply chain disruptions because of COVID. Manufacturers that have had to institute some kind of mitigation efforts to protect their workers from COVID, for example, PPE, or if they have to put signage up in the facility. If they have experienced revenue drops because of COVID. Those things are now also indicators for funding. And on my LinkedIn profile, and you can find me if you search my name, Micki Vandeloo, on my LinkedIn profile, I do a small business and manufacturing COVID-19 grant summary.

And all it does is it summarizes by state. And then there's some that are national, but it summarizes the different grants that are out there to help small businesses and manufacturers. And particularly if a manufacturer is small. And again, there's a staggering number of manufacturing companies that are small, that are under 50 employees. Those companies, if they have had to institute some of these mitigation efforts, or if they have seen significant drops in revenue, a lot of those companies qualify for things like the PPP loan, which is a forgivable loan, which is not much different than a grant, except for the fact that if you don't meet a forgivable loan's terms, you could have to pay that loan back.

The same thing is with the grant but it's a little bit more defined, I guess, with a grant. But a lot of manufacturers have seen, "Wow, we can actually get money to recover from the pandemic." Which is getting them more along the lines of seeing, "Well, maybe there's other grants that can be available. Maybe there's other ways that we can access money." I've seen in the last 12 months that manufacturers have really become more open to the idea of grants. They still don't know where to look to find them but they're at least are more curious about them.

And those would include things that are traditional grants and also grant resources that are there because of COVID. And I can tell you by producing that document that I do that I send out via LinkedIn, it changes every single week. And that's what I think has been so different about the past year. There are new funding opportunities every week, both on the federal and the state level. And with Biden's administration coming in, I can tell you that that will just continue. That will just continue. They just put out a new CARES Act source of funding that's going to fund primarily broadband expansion, but we work with broadband and internet service providers as well. And so, for our clients, I think it's just a very changing landscape right now.

Amanda: Yeah. You touched on my next question a little bit because I'm really curious how the pandemic, the inclement weather conditions, especially in the Southern United States, and the presidential administration change have impacted the landscape for manufacturing grants, if at all. It sounds like there's a lot more available since all of these things have happened.

Micki: Yeah. I think that's going to be something that just continues as this administration continues to roll out its 'Made in America' Executive Order. I think there's going to be more and more opportunities that come out of this. The other thing that I think is going to be on the horizon, Amanda, is I believe that there will be some sort of funding or incentive that supports climate change and that supports reshoring. Because one thing that a lot of manufacturers found from the pandemic was that their supply chains were severely disrupted, especially if they were getting the product from China, from overseas, even from Canada.

And I helped a company and this was a special CARES Act funding that the state of Kansas put out, but I helped a company out there that produces a sanitizing product. So, soaps, disinfecting soaps, and cleaners, and those types of things. And they also provide the dispenser for those products. Well, when COVID hit, they saw that those dispensers were no longer available and they got those from Taiwan and Korea and Canada. And all of a sudden, their lead times jumped from 2 weeks to 20, 40, even not available for any time in the near future.

So, it was really something that affected them dramatically and they lost millions of dollars of orders for that. At the same time, they were producing a product that was in great demand. So, everybody wanted their soaps. Everybody wanted their disinfecting products. Well, the state of Kansas came out with a PPE production and a Supply Chain Fortification Grant program. So they applied for a line to help dramatically increase their supply of disinfecting soaps. And they also under the Supply Chain Fortification program applied for funding to create a line to produce bottles, which they couldn't get their dispensing bottles again from their foreign sources.

They ended up getting $4 million for those two lines, which was incredible. And that is an example of how some states really stepped up during COVID and funded true mitigation efforts. I know another company, they were producing automotive products and during the pandemic, they pivoted, which we've heard that word a lot during COVID, but they pivoted to produce the shields. They did plastic products, they produced the shields that went in front of like cash register stations and those types of things.

And I believe they also got funding from a state program to help purchase the equipment to do that, train their employees and really get that product out into the market. So, you know, I think there have been great examples of how COVID funding has helped companies. Some states did not do that. They chose to instead incentivize restaurants. And I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, but what I think is going to be on the horizon is the realization that manufacturers still continue to have supply chain issues.

There's going to be a need for reshoring. In order for manufacturers to reshore, not only are they going to have to bring the product back, they're going to have to figure out how to make that product. So, they're either going to have to increase their capacity to do so in-house or they're going to need to find a contract manufacturer or somebody locally that can really help them localize that supply chain. So, I think there's going to be growing incentives to localize supply chains, to help increase capacity of manufacturing companies to bring up those products back in-house.

I believe that climate change, which is obviously an area that the president is very involved in, I think that's going to lead to more funding for things like electric vehicles, climate change technologies. The Department of Energy has long been funding research and development and applied research into those climate change technologies. And I think that's just going to grow and expand, and we've already seen that on the federal landscape.

Amanda: Yeah. So, it sounds like some of the grant changes as far as there being more available may kind of last for a little while then?

Micki: Absolutely. And I think as manufacturing policy develops in this country, I know there's been a push by the president to actually have similar to the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, a department of manufacturing because I do believe he truly realizes the impact that manufacturing can have on America's recovery and America's sustainability as an international powerhouse. And I think with that realization comes also the realization that there's a workforce that's needed for that.

So, there is actually talk of having a department of manufacturing to support manufacturing in the United States. And those budget items tend to lead to some sort of incentives, whether they're tax credits, whether it's an extension of current tax credits or grants, or whether it's entirely new grants. That's really the question that's out there right now. What incentives are they going to put out there?

Amanda: Right. That makes sense. So, if I were a manufacturer and I'm listening to our discussion today, and I didn't know there was any funding available to me at all, where would I start? How do I bind what grants I might want?

Micki: Right. Well, there's two ways you can do it. Basically, I would tell a manufacturer, you can go out and you can look to see where grants are for you. I find that manufacturers find that approach very, very daunting. It's not incredibly clear where these grants are or where they come from. You can't simply do a Google search for grants for me as a manufacturer. There is no one database for it. So, the alternative and it is a much easier way to go is for them just to contact me and they can do so through my website, lakeviewconsulting.net. And we can schedule a discovery call.

So, what that is is we have a 30-minute call to talk about what their specific project is, because the grants that they can apply for are very specific to their project, and the outcomes that that project is going to produce, whether it be job creation, facilities, equipment investment, exporting. And what happens is as I go through that conversation, I can identify then exactly what grants they can apply for. The other approach that I've taken with some technology companies is some of them know that there are grants out there but they don't know exactly what those are. And a lot of those might be more federal grants.

We can also work on an ongoing basis with a technology company or a manufacturer to help them continue to stay on top of that grant landscape and to apply for programs that might come up both now and in the future. So, it all starts with a conversation with me and that's very easy to schedule through contacting me through my website.

Amanda: Right. Well, I think some might presume that you know, there's a time investment required to getting funding and that might not be worth it, you know, aside from the other time it takes to find them. Can you kind of just walk us through what the process for applying is like? You know, what is the time and effort investment required to apply? How long does this process take before a manufacturer would see that funding?

Micki: And that's a great question, Amanda, because the process is very much dictated by the funder. And so, I can tell you that if you apply for a federal grant, for example, completing the application will take usually a couple of months and it will take up to six months to find out whether you've got that funding. If you're applying for a state grant, that will take less time to develop the application. And you typically find out sooner whether or not you've gotten the funding.

But the process in its most simple form is once we identify a grant for a manufacturer, we look through the grant RFP, the request for proposal, and we say, "Okay. These are the items that we need you to supply for us to do this application." So, it's usually kind of a laundry list. Most things are things that manufacturers or their HR departments have very readily available. And then after we get that information, we craft the narrative, the application, you know, complying with all the requirements of the applications.

So that can be fonts, that could be page lengths, that can be documents that might be needed, such as org charts or financials. It could be if there's a list of workers that they've hired and that's needed for that application, we might need that information, of course, protecting privacy. So, whatever information we need, we craft that narrative. And again, the time to do that varies because with a federal grant, that can be a very extensive list of requirements. For a state grant, it's typically, you know, five pages or less.

It just basically says, this is who we are and what we're good at, which is something that we can typically glean from the internet. It is what activities we're going to do. So, we're going to train 60 employees, for example, for a training grant, we're going to train 60 employees in industrial maintenance. It's going to cost us this much money to do that effort. And this is going to be the outcome. So, employees that go through this training are going to have greater skills to be able to do their job. They're going to be more productive at their job, which is going to help our company increase our revenues and increase our efficiencies.

So that's basically the narrative of something like a state grant. That whole process takes about two to four weeks to do, depending on how quickly we can get information from the client. Then we submit that application. And at the state level, they will typically find out in one to three months if they've gotten the grant. The real key to all this, Amanda, is that with almost every grant, there are very few grants that are an exception to this. You have to apply for the grant. You have to do the project that you proposed in the grant, and then you get a reimbursement at the end of the project.

They will not fund anything that is done after that application's been submitted. So, for example, for a manufacturer, if they wanted to do this training program and they applied on May 1st for the training funding, they couldn't turn around on May 10th and do the training and then expect that funder to pay for it when they don't approve the funding until June. So, projects that are done before the funding is approved are typically ineligible for the funding. And sometimes that creates a problem for a manufacturer because they may want to do that training program next week.

And what I have to tell them is, "You're not going to get approved for the funding and they won't cover it. So let's look at training programs that are a little bit farther out. You're just going to have to go next year for that training funding when you're planning on doing that training again." So, it's very important to understand the requirements and the rules that the funder has. And in almost all cases, you have to get the grant approved before you can start work.

Amanda: Right. That makes sense. Well, you know, going maybe a step further, what advice do you have for manufacturers as they start pursuing grant funding? You know, what expectations should they set? Maybe what expectations should they not have? And what should they be paying close attention to? I mean, you mentioned obviously timeline is something that's very important.

Micki: Well, the biggest thing that I encourage manufacturers to do on an ongoing basis, not just when they're looking at grants is to keep their strategic plan updated. Because really what flows out of the strategic plan are the projects that can be funded. So, for example, if a manufacturer has a strategic plan initiative for 2021 to add onto their facility and to invest in additional equipment to address anticipated increases in sales, those are things I like to know as early as possible. And the reason for that is exactly what I talked about before.

Because for us to engage with the funder and get the application filled out and get it approved, it takes time. It takes sometimes two to four months, depending on how much work that needs to be done and again, what the funder's rules are. So, I like to know...for example, I'm working with clients on projects that aren't going to happen for six months. That's ideal because that gives us that runway to be able to fill out applications, really parse out the parts of their project that can be funded, pursue that funding, get that funding approved all before they're even doing the work.

So, I like to work with manufacturers on projects and one result from the strategic plan because then they have a very good idea of what the outcomes are going to be. It's an important project to them. So they have some stake in the game as far as complying with the rules of the funder and that type of thing. But I also like to work as far ahead as possible. And that's sometimes difficult for manufacturers, particularly if they don't engage in a regular strategic planning process. If they're kind of doing this off the cuff, "Oh, we're getting this business. Now we want to add a facility," for example.

They might not have the runway that it takes to be able to apply for the grants. The other thing that I like to tell, especially if they're applying for training grants, what I like to advise clients to do is to create a year-long training plan. So, create a document that says, here's our employees along the top, and here's all the training those are employees are going to need to do their job. And it can be a matrix. It can be basically, you know, the employees across the top and on the side, there'd be the different training options that they can provide.

Or they can go and talk to those employees and say, "What kind of training do you need to have?" We can help clients develop those training plans. But what I tell clients is if you're going to pursue training funding, look at a year's worth of training. Because it's really hard after you submit one application to go in and submit another. The more you can ask for as early as you can, the more likely you are going to be to get the most funding. That's because training funding typically runs on fiscal year cycles, which are typically July 1st to June 30th.

So, they are looking at a year's worth of funding for their program. You need to look at a year's worth of training for your company so that you can as quickly get as much of that money as you can. Because if you wait until the end of that training program, and this happens a lot, they might spend out all the money by March or April. So then you don't have any chance to get funding for some of those later courses that you didn't plan on in the beginning. And I do understand that things change for manufacturers and that they need to invest sometimes with very short timeframes. That just isn't a great application for them for grant funding.

Amanda: That makes sense. So, a lot of planning and, you know, making sure you have all your ducks in a row before you really start diving in.

Micki: Sure.

Amanda: Well, thank you so much for joining us again, Micki. I really appreciate all your insights here and really interesting to hear how things have changed. I'm glad to see that there was some positive out of COVID and now we have some more money available to help our manufacturers.

Micki: Sure. It's been a real pleasure to join you, Amanda. And I would encourage your listeners to check out my website. I do have an articles tab on my website where I do articles on items of interest to the manufacturing community. One article on there that I think would be of particular interest is the 'Made in America' Order and how it's going to affect the funding landscape. I do have those resources on there. And also follow me on LinkedIn because I do post funding opportunities that are specific for manufacturers.

And I also, like I said, publish that summary every week of COVID funding, which again, a lot of manufacturers can apply for. And you can just again, search for me on LinkedIn. It's Micki, M-I-C-K-I and Vandeloo, V-A-N-D-E-L-O-O, or my company lakeviewconsulting.net.

Amanda: Wonderful. Well, thank you again, and thanks to our listeners for tuning in today. As always, be sure to subscribe to "Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce" on your favorite podcasting app. And until next time, stay safe.

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