State’s manufacturers are grinding out more good jobs

Sector’s future getting brighter

By Lisa Eckelbecker | The Worcester Telegram | September 30, 2o12

Mark Fisher and his eight employees can bend steel to their will.

Yet what they’d like at Merchant’s Fabrication Inc., the nine-person business on Elm Street that Mr. Fisher bought in 2009, is a little more attention.

“We’d like to have people know we’re here,” said Mr. Fisher.

Merchant’s Fabrication will get its chance Friday. The business at 13 Elm St. and its next-door neighbor, American Steel and Aluminum LLC, 27 Elm St., will open their doors to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. as part of a nationwide effort organized by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International and the National Association of Manufacturers.

One goal is to raise the profile of manufacturing.

“I think that this message is resonating very clearly right now, and I think it’s an opportunity to showcase the unique opportunities in manufacturing,” said Ned L. Monroe, senior vice president of external relations for the National Association of Manufacturers.

The last 15 years have not been kind to manufacturing in Massachusetts. The sector employed about 413,000 people in 1998. This year, employment is down to 251,000.

Yet the sector also has undergone a transformation. As recently as 2000, low-technology manufacturing industries such as paper printing and tobacco made up the biggest piece of the state’s manufacturing pie, according to an analysis by researchers at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in Boston. In 2010, high-tech sectors such as aerospace and pharmaceuticals represented the biggest segment of manufacturing, the report “Staying Power II: A Report Card on Manufacturing in Massachusetts” showed.

Productivity gains in the companies that survived the Great Recession helped the sector become a more important part of the Massachusetts economy.

  • In 2009, the sector accounted for 10.8 percent of the state’s private industry output. By 2011, that was up to 12.2 percent.
  • A total of 43 net new firms were created in 2011 in Massachusetts, the Northeastern researchers reported.
  • As of June, manufacturing was the sixth-largest employer in the state. With average annual wages above $75,000, the sector has the second-largest payroll in the state, Barry Bluestone, a co-author of the Northeastern report, said last week during a speech at a conference at the DCU Center in Worcester.

“Manufacturing is still a major sector, in terms of employment,” Mr. Bluestone said.

Manufacturing doesn’t necessarily look so rosy to the public. People surveyed across the country last year by Deloitte Development LLC and The Manufacturing Institute overwhelmingly supported manufacturing. About 86 percent said manufacturing is very important to U.S. economic prosperity. But 55 percent said they expect the long-term outlook for U.S. manufacturing to weaken, and 37 percent said manufacturing careers and jobs are stable relative to other industries.

In Massachusetts, where the manufacturing work force is aging, poor perceptions of the industry stand to complicate recruitment. Large companies that slowed hiring of engineers now find they’ve lost opportunities to bring younger workers into their businesses, according to Richard D. Sisson Jr., director of manufacturing and materials engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester.

“They’ve had several years over the last 10 years where they didn’t hire too many people,” he said. “Now they see there’s a gap.”

The North Central Massachusetts Development Corp., an arm of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, will publicize some of its training initiatives at the chamber on Friday as part of Manufacturing Day. John R. Harden, economic development specialist, said one goal is to shift the dial on manufacturing so it is perceived as an acceptable career to young people and their families.

“Manufacturers have found even if the kids are interested, their parents don’t want them going into those careers,” Mr. Harden said. “What they need to better understand is that manufacturing that was going on 50 years ago is not anything like the manufacturing that’s going on now.”

At Merchant’s Fabrication in Auburn, Mr. Fisher sank more than $300,000 into new equipment for the company’s 10,000-square-foot leased facility after he purchased the metal fabricator. The equipment, including a machine that cuts through steel with a jet of water and abrasives, allows his workers to cut, bend and weld metal. Some pieces will go into machines that produce pharmaceuticals or beverages. Some form large tubes.

Manufacturing brings with it a certain satisfaction, according to Mr. Harden, an engineer.

“There’s something about being able to hold the thing, see the thing and make the thing,” he said.

One building away, workers at the 104,000-square-foot American Steel and Aluminum LLC facility take large coils of metal and thread them through a series of machines that flatten and cut the pieces to size for customers. On another line, slitting machines cut the coils of steel, stainless steel and aluminum into thin strips. The company’s customers purchase metal to form automotive parts, snaps on clothing, the bases on fire extinguishers and other products.

Many of the plant workers are 50 to 60 years old, and some have worked there 20 to 30 years, said Greg D. Egan, plant manager and 13-year veteran of the company. About 35 people work for American Steel and Aluminum, which is part of Canada-based Novamerican Steel Inc.

Attracting people to the steel business isn’t always easy.

“I don’t have a lot of young people coming in here looking for work,” Mr. Egan said.

Philip Warren, general manager of American Steel and Aluminum, said the plant is participating in Manufacturing Day to emphasize the role of manufacturing in the U.S. economy.

“We’re concerned about the perception that manufacturing is going away, that it’s going to Mexico or China or Indonesia,” he said. “We think it’s coming back.”

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