February 20, 2012 | last updated April 19, 2012 2:00 pm

The Changing Face Of Manufacturing

Recent data from the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute and the Virginia-based Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness (CREC) proclaimed: "Manufacturing is back - and hiring" in Massachusetts. The data touted a seemingly healthy 73,000 job openings in the Bay State in 2011, second only to health care and social service jobs.

That's certainly a welcome news nugget in an economy still climbing back to a healthier state than the one in which it has been languishing for most of the past four years. But beyond that bit of warm and fuzzy news, the manufacturing sector in the Bay State has much to do to become as robust a part of the state's economy as it once was, especially here in Central Massachusetts.

First, today's manufacturing industry is very different from that of a generation ago, and things have gotten more complicated amid a global economy. As other nations have absorbed many of the traditional "factory floor" production roles, an overwhelming majority of those 73,000 openings — nearly 95 percent — were for non-production roles such as sales, customer service, management and information technology support.

To quote from a statement about the report: "Fewer openings existed for machinists, assemblers and quality inspectors, which are often thought of as more traditional manufacturing occupations."

The future of manufacturing in Massachusetts hinges on two factors: technology and education, and they go hand in hand, especially in this region of the commonwealth. To strengthen that bond, the state's manufacturers and education institutions — both colleges and technical high schools — need to continue to work together to train current employees on new technology and techniques, while investing in the educational programs that can replenish manufacturing workforces with skilled personnel and help small manufacturing firms expand.

Jack Healy, director at the Worcester-based Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, says 69 percent of Massachusetts' manufacturers have fewer than 20 employees, which makes for what he calls a "very fragile environment," one that needs to be supported with technology, which boosts productivity and can help manufacturers grow in an increasingly competitive global environment.

And that's where manufacturers themselves can help, according to Lee Duerden, a professor at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester who is the school's program coordinator for manufacturing technology. Speaking to a group of about 50 manufacturing industry representatives at a gathering last week in Worcester, Duerden urged them to help schools such as Quinsigamond and Worcester Technical High School to invest in modern technology that can help teach the needed skills to tomorrow's manufacturing workers.

Healy says schools in Central Massachusetts — he specifically cited Worcester Tech, Quinsigamond and Worcester Polytechnic Institute — do a better job of helping students keep current with manufacturing skills and techniques than schools in other parts of the state.

The CREC-Donahue report also stressed the importance of education in the manufacturing sector, noting that 45 percent of the job openings in 2011 required at least some post-secondary education, with the overwhelming majority of that group needing at least a bachelor's degree.

Manufacturing has long been a key to economic wealth in the United States, especially since the post-World War II years. And it has helped lift other economies around the world. It needs to continue to be a healthy part of the economic mix here in Massachusetts, and our educational institutions need the resources to keep our region ahead of the curve.


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