Manufacturing as a career choice and an economic driver
As originally appearing in Mass High Tech

By James T. Brett, president & CEO, The New England Council

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, today’s advanced manufacturing does not rely on low-cost labor and scale/volume, but on skills and creativity to produce highly specified and complex products. The industry does not exist as a set of isolated firms, but resides in a talent-rich network of engineers, developers, entrepreneurs, scientists, financiers and machinists. In Massachusetts, advanced manufacturing contributes nearly 10 percent of the state GDP, and 5 percent of all jobs. Throughout New England, nearly 350,000 people are employed in advanced manufacturing. Its potential is enormous.

The question is this: How do we help create, promote and sustain advanced manufacturing as 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.

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 should be moved expeditiously through the legislative process. Designed to focus dedicated resources on an economic sector that offers enormous potential, 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 advanced manufacturing industry that is developing around us. For example, the Make it in America Block Grant legislation recently filed by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) was prompted by the incredible array of ideas that exist in small manufacturing businesses around Rhode Island, 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 assistance with resources to retool, retrofit, adapt and train employees to advance the production of clean energy components and other advanced products. 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 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.

Through a focused collaboration of industry, government, and education, advanced manufacturing can be expanded. Industry specialists can share best practices, government 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.

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