James Brett is president and chief executive of the New England Council. Mike Reopel is a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP.
As America fights to recover from one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression, there are signs of improvement, yet unemployment rates are still devastatingly high. Rhode Island has been particularly hard hit, with an unemployment rate of 11.9 percent — the fourth-highest in the nation.
A recent study commissioned by the New England Council points to one sector of the economy where there is great potential for job growth. 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, about 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 Raytheon in Portsmouth and Electric Boat in Quonset Point use well-trained — and well-compensated — workforces to make intricate devices that are internationally recognized for their quality, complexity and attention to detail. In Rhode Island alone, advanced manufacturing jobs represent over half of all manufacturing jobs.
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.
Much of the problem is perception. When many people hear the word “manufacturing,” they immediately think of the “Four D’s” — 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 rebrand advanced manufacturing as a lucrative profession for young intellectual minds would surely help the industry in New England keep pace with its substantial promise.
Every indicator for success in the advanced-manufacturing industry bodes well for our region. The industry thrives in areas that, like New England, have 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.
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 much 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. 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, 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 in New England to implement advantageous loan programs and to reach across their borders to foster a regional environment in which advanced manufacturing can thrive. And we need manufacturers themselves to drive efforts to raise awareness about the issue.
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 potential of the advanced-manufacturing sector, we will let Rhode Island and the New England states be larger than the sum of their parts in economic opportunity, prosperity and job growth.