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 that 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 report, “Advanced Manufacturing in a Networked World,” today’s advanced manufacturing does not rely on low-cost labor and scale, but rather on skills and creativity to produce highly specified and complex products.
In Massachusetts alone, 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 not only in Massachusetts, but 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? 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. Such an effort has strong bipartisan support in Congress and the recently introduced National Manufacturing Strategy Act of 2011 should be moved expeditiously through the legislative process.
The 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 discussions and create and implement 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 Make It In America Block Grant legislation recently filed by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) would give those states and communities that are struggling the most — like so many communities here in New England — 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.
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.
James T. Brett is the president and CEO of The New England Council.