Advanced Manufacturing And The New England Economy
As originally appearing in The Hartford Business Journal

James Brett is the president and CEO of the New England Council. Mike Reopel is a principal at Deloitte Consulting, LLP.

Irrespective of party affiliation, even the most casual observer of politics will tell you that that the electoral landscape has been profoundly impacted by voter anxiety over the last several years.

Most recently, a poll conducted just before the special Senate election just over the border in Massachusetts found that, out of seven different categories, a full 44 percent of residents identified “jobs and the economy” as the most important issue facing that state. And most agree that this sentiment led to the transformative event of electing a Republican to the seat reliably held by Sen. Ted Kennedy for nearly 50 years.

A recent study commissioned by the New England Council just may be able provide relief from some of this electoral anxiety. The study, conducted by Deloitte Consulting LLP, explores prospects for growth and expansion within the region’s advanced manufacturing sector.

Perhaps one of the document’s most compelling findings is that there is still tremendous potential for growth in this lucrative field. In fact, with a renewed focus, approximately 8,000 new jobs with average salaries of $80,000 could be created in the region each year.

This sector of New England’s economy is ready to roar, if only we unleash its potential.

Advanced manufacturing harnesses significant training and well-honed skills to develop highly specialized products in industries such as aerospace, life sciences, medical devices, semi-conductors, and nano-technology. Companies such as United Technologies in Hartford and Electric Boat in Groton use well-trained — and well-compensated — workforces to manufacture intricate devices that are internationally recognized for their quality, complexity and attention to detail. In Connecticut alone, advanced manufacturing jobs represent nearly 70 percent of manufacturing jobs overall.

Despite the opportunities involved, however, advanced manufacturing still faces substantial image and public policy challenges. Employers are actually struggling in some cases to fill high-paying jobs, with an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 advanced manufacturing positions in New England left unfilled at one recent point. Subsequently, vibrant industries that could help fuel our region’s economic resurgence are impeded from reaching their full potential.

A large part of the problem is perception.

When many people hear the word “manufacturing,” they immediately think of the “Four Ds” — dirty, dark, dangerous, and declining. Under this misguided assessment, parents and teachers tend not to advocate careers in the advanced manufacturing sector or don’t emphasize how a solid backing in mathematics and applied sciences can give students a leading edge for these high-paying jobs. An effort to “re-brand” advanced manufacturing as a viable and lucrative profession for young intellectual minds would surely help the industry in New England keep pace with its substantial promise.

Importantly, every indicator for success in the advanced manufacturing industry bodes well for our region. The industry thrives in areas like New England that have key concentrations of engineering, academic, science, finance and other talent “clusters” to support the regional expertise needed to produce complex goods. These highly concentrated clusters create the kind of one-stop-shopping environment and the “innovation ability” needed for advanced manufacturing to flourish, particularly within central and southwestern Connecticut.

Because advanced manufacturing networking clusters are best fostered when borders are not barriers, synergies can also be realized by collaborating across state lines in a truly regional and bipartisan fashion.

While a good deal of legislative discussion at the state level is devoted to the “Next Big Thing” in high-tech and biotech, we must work to ensure that this discussion does not obscure the Present Big Thing that is occurring right in our backyards. Ongoing legislative efforts and inter-state discussions aimed at revitalizing our economy should take a holistic approach inclusive of the specific needs associated with advanced manufacturing.

We need to encourage students to train for and seek these good jobs at good wages, as well as prompt parents and educators to track students into the math and science curriculum that will arm them with the appropriate skills. We need state governments throughout New England to implement advantageous loan programs and to reach across their borders to foster a positive regional environment in which advanced manufacturing can thrive. And we need manufacturers themselves to drive efforts to raise awareness about the issue overall.

The New England Council report is nothing short of a call to action for anyone who has an interest in spurring the economy and creating jobs, a call that elected officials from both parties would do well to heed. By tapping into the powerful potential in the advanced manufacturing sector, we will allow Connecticut and the New England states to be larger than the sum of their parts in terms of economic opportunity, prosperity and job growth.

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