Manufacturing a Mass. miracle

By Barry Bluestone and Jerry Sargent | The Boston Herald | October 27, 2012

If you follow our state’s economic news, you’ve probably heard repeatedly how our innovative technology industries — mobile applications, cloud computing, biotech, medical devices — are fueling our recovery. Indeed, these sectors are thriving. So much so that you’ve probably also heard about the so-called “skills gap” — the lack of qualified professionals necessary to fill the growing number of high-quality jobs.

But lost beneath the tech headlines is another thriving sector facing the same challenge: manufacturing.

That’s right, the sector many gave up for dead when the mills closed last century is alive and well, employing a quarter of a million workers and growing. Quickly.

So quickly that a survey released earlier this month by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University revealed these sobering facts:

  • Forty-three percent of the firms surveyed expressed substantial difficulty in recruiting skilled craftsmen;
  • Nearly a quarter worry about their ability to hire research-and-development manufacturing specialists;
  • Retiring workers could create another huge shortfall — as many as 100,000 experienced workers may leave the workforce over the next decade.

Further widening the gap are the demands of today’s technology-driven, precision assembly plants, which require ever more highly trained workers.

If you’re a CEO like Mike Tamasi, who worked at his father’s AccuRounds plant as a boy and now runs this precision turning, milling and grinding business, one of your toughest jobs is finding the right workers.

His solution: He works directly with the often underused vocational schools (in Tamasi’s case, nearby Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School) and community colleges, such as Bristol Community College in Attleboro, to develop internships, mentoring programs and curricula.

Collaboration is key, but by no means assured. According to our study, only one in eight Massachusetts firms recognizes the state’s community colleges as a vital talent pipeline. Nonetheless, the study shows rays of hope on collaboration issues. Just under a third of the firms agreed more should be done to incorporate industry standards in the curricula of vocational schools and community colleges. Close to a third supported the creation of a community college certificate in manufacturing technology and 28 percent said managers and workers should serve as mentors and advisers in these schools.

But more needs to be done to foster collaboration and to celebrate manufacturing. Indeed, the survey also revealed growing support among company owners for a statewide marketing campaign promoting manufacturing careers to young people.

What this report reveals is that reports of manufacturing’s death in the Bay State have been greatly exaggerated. Firms that “build things” have survived and are now prospering by bringing innovation to the factory floor and by focusing on specialty products that require precision and sophistication. In order to keep our newfound momentum in this sector, we’ll need more cooperation among executives, educators and policymakers. Our competitors around the world are moving. So must we.

Barry Bluestone is director of the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University. Jerry Sargent is the president of RBS Citizens and Citizens Bank, Massachusetts, which helped fund the study.

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