As New England continues to recover from the Great Recession, attention often turns to which sectors will become economic drivers. 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?
While the region is clearly recovering, the pace of recovery varies significantly among the six states. For instance, Massachusetts and Vermont are experiencing the strongest economic performance, while Rhode Island and Maine lag. New England continues to be affected by external factors such as vulnerabilities in the European economy and the fiscal drag from federal sequestration. Looking forward, the region is expected to continue to grow slowly, with overall employment rising an average 1.4 percent per year and gross regional product 3.3 percent each year over the next three years. When it comes to job growth, all six states are expected to remain below the national average, but Massachusetts has already recovered the jobs it lost in the recession.
Throughout the region, a manufacturing resurgence would have a significant economic impact. Traditional manufacturing has been on the decline nationwide for the last three decades. However, New England lost approximately 60 percent of its manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years, while the U.S. lost just 40 percent. The impact of these losses has resulted in lower employment growth in New England over this period; in fact, 50 percent below the U.S. average. This highlights the significant impact a manufacturing turnaround could have on our region’s future, particularly given the sector’s impact as an economic driver. Manufacturing generates significant exports and pays relatively high wages.
Yet, the 30-year decline appears to have leveled off. From 2010 to 2012, New England manufacturing employment remained flat rather than continue its decline. Even with the devastating trends in recent decades, three states — Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut — have a manufacturing concentration well above the national average.
Fortunately, there are many opportunities to facilitate the re-emergence of manufacturing as an economic driver. Throughout New England, educational institutions, nonprofits, companies, municipalities and states are focusing on efforts to revitalize the manufacturing base and pave the way for new capabilities to take root here. Some common themes emerge from their work.
New England can generate enormous manufacturing gains if research and development capabilities are leveraged as a network to support and drive new capabilities. Home to a high concentration of research facilities, the region can bring together the talent needed to focus on manufacturing, particularly the emerging advanced manufacturing sector that’s replacing traditional types of production. Compared with other parts of the country, the ingredients for a highly competitive manufacturing sector in New England are located in close proximity to each other, which can help promote collaboration and boost innovation.
The entire sector would benefit from clear messaging about how different today’s manufacturing environments are — often pristine, highly innovative and creative work settings that involve challenging, complex processes. The industry needs a particular emphasis on workforce development because these are high-paying jobs that require advanced skills. Given the educational resources available in the region, there’s ample opportunity to equip tomorrow’s workers for the emerging manufacturing environment. If we do, we could dramatically change New England’s economic prospects.
James T. Brett is president and CEO of The New England Council. Alan Clayton-Matthews, a professor at Northeastern University, is Massachusetts forecast manager for the New England Economic Project.
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