Step into any high school classroom on career day, or check in at an unemployment center, and you are not likely to hear discussions about “manufacturing” as a future career possibility. That’s too bad, because as a New England Council report pointed out last year, today’s manufacturing opportunities are not necessarily what you might expect.
Parents and grandparents often describe difficult physical labor in dark, dangerous factories when they talk about manufacturing, and try to steer their offspring toward other careers. However, the truth is, today’s advanced manufacturing setting is more likely to be a safe, clean-room environment, requiring employees with highly developed computer or engineering skills.
According to the council report — Advanced Manufacturing in a Networked World — today’s advanced manufacturing does not rely on low-cost labor and scale/volume, but rather on skills and creativity to produce highly specified and complex products. The industry does not exist as a set of isolated individual firms, but resides in a talent-rich network of engineers, business developers, entrepreneurs, scientists, financiers, machinists, and others. In Connecticut alone, advanced manufacturing contributes 7.5 percent of total GDP to the state, and nearly 8 percent of total jobs. Its potential is enormous throughout the entire region.
The question is this: How do we help create, promote and sustain advanced manufacturing as more and more of the region’s traditional manufacturing base disappears?
These are highly compensated jobs that require specialized skills. We need to be strategic in our thinking and creative in our approach to spur the growth of advanced manufacturing in our region.
A national manufacturing strategy would provide a critical framework for thinking about how to reinvent manufacturing in this country. There is strong bipartisan support in Congress, and the recently introduced National Manufacturing Strategy Act of 2011 — co-sponsored by Representatives John Larson and Chris Murphy of Connecticut — should be moved expeditiously through the legislative process. Designed to focus dedicated resources on an economic sector that offers enormous potential for the future, this bill calls for regular development of a national manufacturing plan and integration of new thinking about manufacturing into the annual budget process and other government efforts. To create a new manufacturing base in our country and our region, we need to move beyond discussion to creating and implementing a substantive plan that brings it to life.
We must also look at creative ways to nurture the emerging advanced manufacturing industry that is beginning to develop around us. For example, the recently filed Make it in America Block Grant legislation — also co-sponsored by Rep. Chris Murphy — was prompted by the incredible array of ideas that exist in small manufacturing businesses, but don’t quite have the resources to blossom into full-fledged job creation opportunities. The approach would give those states and communities that are struggling the most — like so many communities here in Connecticut — assistance with resources to retool, retrofit, adapt, train and re-train employees to advance the production of clean energy components, high-technology products, and other advanced products. It is targeted help, for those small manufacturers that can offer the greatest promise for job creation.
We need to align our educational and training efforts so that students and those transitioning within the workforce know what skills are needed, and how to attain them.
Finally, as the New England Council pointed out a year ago, we need to link existing manufacturing networks to premiere shared services providers and networks — such as workforce development organizations, economic development leaders, and management consultancy groups such as the various manufacturing industry organizations.
Through a more focused collaboration of industry, government, and education, advanced manufacturing can be enhanced and expanded. Industry specialists can share best practices and services, government agencies can better target financial and workforce development support, and educators can play active roles in promoting the brand and enthusiasm for advanced manufacturing as part of the economy. We have an opportunity to add between 7,500 and 8,500 advanced manufacturing jobs across annually, with total compensation approaching $80,000, on average. That’s worth our attention.
James T. Brett is the president & CEO of The New England Council, a non-partisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England formed to promote economic growth and a high quality of life in the New England region.
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