BBJ: Advanced manufacturing is key to region’s economic recovery
As originally appearing in The Boston Business Journal

By James T. Brett & Alan Clayton-Matthews

As New England continues to recover from the recession, attention often turns to which sectors will be economic drivers in the future. A recent New England Economic Partnership conference, sponsored by the New England Council, examined the role of advanced manufacturing in the region’s future. The central question is: given New England’s deep traditional manufacturing history and its demise in recent decades, what is the outlook for a transformative revitalization of this sector?

Overall, the region is clearly recovering, although the pace of recovery varies significantly among the six states. New England continues to be affected by external factors such as vulnerabilities in the European economy and the fiscal drag from sequestration of federal funding. Looking forward, the region is expected to continue to grow slowly, with overall employment growth averaging 1.4 percent per year and regional gross product increasing 3.3 percent each year over the next three years.

In terms of employment growth, all six New England states are expected to remain below the national average. However, Massachusetts has already recovered the jobs it lost in the recession.

Traditional manufacturing has been on the decline nationwide for the last three decades. But New England lost about 60 percent of its manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years, while the U.S. lost 40 percent. This loss highlights the significant impact a manufacturing turnaround could have on our region’s future, particularly given the sector’s impact as an economic driver.

On a positive note, the 30-year decline appears to have plateaued. From 2010 to 2012, New England manufacturing employment remained flat rather than continuing to decline.

Fortunately, there are numerous opportunities to facilitate the reemergence of manufacturing as an economic driver for the region.

The entire manufacturing sector would benefit from clear messaging about how today’s manufacturing environments — often pristine, highly innovative and creative work settings that involve challenging, complex processes. A particular emphasis on workforce development is required — these are high-paying jobs that require advanced skills. Given the educational resources available in the region, there is ample opportunity to equip tomorrow’s workers for the emerging manufacturing environment. If we do, we could dramatically change the region’s economic prospects.

James T. Brett is CEO of The New England Council. Alan Clayton-Matthews is associate professor at Northeastern University.

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