Massachusetts fares well in factory jobs study

by Hiawatha Bray | | May 09, 2012

Factory jobs in Massachusetts, once confined to a museum display, are not only alive and well, but quite profitable for the workers holding them.

So finds a new study from the Brookings Institution, which looked at the state of manufacturing across the United States and found that even at reduced numbers, factory jobs can pay high wages, especially to those performing the most sophisticated production work.

In Boston for example, factory workers who make the most demanding technology products, such as advanced electronics gear or specialized drugs, earn average wages of more than $110,000 a year, according to Brookings. Even less skilled factory jobs pay well; the average income for manufacturing jobs in the metro area is $82,415 a year, among the highest in the country.

“Manufacturing jobs are very wellpaying jobs,’’ said Eric Nakajima, senior innovation adviser for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. “They’re also jobs that have a high multiplier effect,’’ he said, because manufacturers purchase a lot of services and supplies from other local firms, further boosting the economy.

Not surprisingly, computer and electronics companies account for a big share of the manufacturing jobs in Greater Boston – nearly 30 percent; fabricated metals, machinery, and food manufacturing are other major employers.

All told, Greater Boston has 178,000 manufacturing jobs. While that is only 7.3 percent of the total local workforce, it is still the eighth-highest concentration among US metro areas, according to Brookings. And some 40 percent of those jobs are considered “very high tech,’’ by the Washington think tank, meaning that they are at companies in the aerospace, computers and electronics, or pharmaceutical manufacturing sectors. Those firms are also characterized as having a high number of scientists and engineers on the payroll.

Many of these products are invisible to consumers, like high-end storage gear from EMC Corp. of Hopkinton or microchips from Analog Devices Inc. in Norwood. The region also boasts pharmaceutical firms that produce sophisticated drugs, such as Genzyme Corp. of Cambridge.

Nypro Inc. in Clinton makes plastic parts for the health care industry at its Clinton facility and employs more than 900 workers in the state. Nypro spokesman Al Cotton said that staying in Massachusetts gives his company access to innovative new plastics technologies being developed at local colleges. In addition, Cotton said Massachusetts community colleges provide a constant supply of well-trained workers.

Yet the region has not recovered the thousands of jobs lost over the years, including more than a third of all positions in Greater Boston that vanished in the first decade of the 21st century. And Boston is rebounding at a far slower pace than other manufacturing regions, according to Howard Wial, a Brookings economist who co-authored the study. One reason: Much of the recent surge in US manufacturing has benefited durable goods companies like carmakers, which aren’t significant players in the Boston economy, Wial said.

Still, Barry Bluestone, professor of political economy at Northeastern University, said the Brookings findings confirm his research that the state’s manufacturing sector is surprisingly healthy. In 1982, he wrote a book titled “The Deindustrialization of America.’’ Now Bluestone is having a change of heart.

“For the first time, I see glimmers of hope for a rebirth of a manufacturing base in America,’’ he said.

Bluestone is preparing his own survey of the state’s manufacturers, and his early findings have bolstered his newfound optimism. “Manufacturing has actually been recovering since 2007,’’ he said. “As a percentage of gross state product, it is higher than it was in 2000.’’

Bluestone said he has talked to some manufacturers who are worried about finding skilled workers, because not enough young people seem interested in careers on the factory floor.

“There are not many people who are going to say, ‘I want to find a job in manufacturing,’ ’’ said Bluestone. “It doesn’t get much respect.’’

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