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On January 29, 2021, the Center for Urban and Regional Studies (CURS) at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced a new report, Gearing Up: MEP Center Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic, documenting the wide range of support the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a program under U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, is delivering to U.S. manufacturers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report details how, despite the pandemic’s profound impacts on manufacturing, MEP Centers are helping manufacturers safely operate and meet the nation’s critical needs for personal protective equipment (PPE).

Nichola Lowe
Nichola Lowe

The CARES Act recognized the potential of manufacturers to implement creative strategies to adapt and respond to the pandemic and provided $50 million for the 51 MEP Centers in every state and Puerto Rico to assist manufacturers in a wide variety of ways. These efforts include helping firms retool production systems, identify new supply chains, integrate new technologies, deliver safety training, and enhance cybersecurity protection. According to data gathered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, close to 95,000 US-based manufacturers were contacted by MEP Centers, resulting in approximately 9,000 manufacturing client projects between June 30 through September 30, 2020.

A team at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led by CURS Interim Director Nichola Lowe, professor of city and regional planning, documented the wide range of MEP Center responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their report is based on the team’s research conducted during the fall of 2020.

Key findings include:

  • MEP Centers in 48 states provided new or expanded consulting services or performed needs surveys
  • MEP Centers in 42 states provided product and/or supplier matching services
  • MEP Centers in 31 states created return-to-work guides
  • MEP Centers in 29 states provided assistance with retooling to produce PPE
  • MEP Centers in 13 states assisted manufacturers with PPE product testing and development
Olivia Raines
Olivia Raines

“MEP Centers have expanded far beyond process-oriented client support, demonstrating their ability to also help firms retain and redirect workforce talent, design innovative products and develop emergency response strategies that will be helpful for future pandemics and natural disasters. Scaling these efforts further will ensure our national economic recovery is driven by manufacturing innovation and the growth of high-paying, quality jobs,” said Lowe. This possibility is only reinforced with President Biden’s executive order signed on January 25, 2021, that among other things, directs federal agencies to utilize the MEP to connect with domestic suppliers who can make the products the agencies need while employing America’s workers.

The Gearing Up report contains 51 profiles, one for each state and Puerto Rico. Each profile is 1-2 pages long and outlines the MEP Center’s pandemic-related assistance to their state’s manufacturers in areas such as training, layoff aversion, domestic sourcing and technology needs. The report includes a detailed chart that shows the types of pandemic-related assistance done by each state’s MEP Center.

“MEP Centers used the opportunities afforded by CARES Act funding to respond to both shorter-term challenges related to COVID-19, such as PPE retooling assistance and conducting needs assessments, as well as long-term opportunities that will benefit manufacturers long after the pandemic is over. In the short-term, MEP Centers have shown innovation and an ability to lean on nonconventional partners to meet common goals,” shared Olivia Raines, project lead and master’s student in city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill.

This project was supported by the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with funding from the North Carolina Coronavirus Relief Fund, established and appropriated by the North Carolina General Assembly.

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