What exactly is going on in Massachusetts manufacturing? Quite a bit, says Jack Healy, director of operations for the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extensions Partnership (MASS MEP). In a conversation with Steve Engelhardt of Industry Today, Healy talks about the present state of manufacturing in Massachusetts, the challenges manufacturers will face in the coming years, and the extensive amount of work he and his organization are doing to ensure that Massachusetts is a significant manufacturer in the United States going forward.
The northeast may be get overlooked at times when individuals look at states making impactful contributions to the United States’ manufacturing scene.
However, Massachusetts politely bucks this trend, putting together an impressive manufacturing scene over the years despite being composed mainly of small-sized manufacturers. Much of this impressive work won’t just be seen in their bottom lines, but also behind the scenes in the work they’re doing to prepare their local workforce for the future of manufacturing as the industry becomes more and more complex.
A Gap to Fill
The issue of a skills gap is no different in Massachusetts than it is in the rest of the country. In response, Healy says that his organization has undertaken several work readiness initiatives, quite honestly out of necessity. “In the state of Massachusetts, 50 percent of the students enrolling in community colleges have to go through remedial training,” he says, adding, “and these are the people who are in college, I don’t even know what the proficiency is of those who don’t even go to college and are looking for work.” Tackling the issue at the high school level is very important, and as a result, he says, “we’re very much involved in getting our manufacturer connected with educators.”
Healy says this issue of a skills gap is compounded by the fact that there will be approximately 69 million individuals from the “Baby Boomer” that will have retired by 2020, and there are only about 34 million “Millennials” available to take their spots. And even with these 34 million would-be workers, there’s no guarantee that they will be ready skill-wise when the time comes for them to be put to work. “If you looked back at the manufacturing scene in the 50’s and 60’s, about 70 percent of the jobs didn’t require a higher education,” Healy says, adding that nowadays, “those jobs constitute only about 15 percent of manufacturing-related labor.”
What’s happening is that manufacturers, in Massachusetts as well as the rest of the country, are facing not only an employee shortage in the coming years, but also a talent deficiency in those that are eligible to work. While the talent issue is something that is an ongoing challenge, Healy says that the worker shortage, at least in his state, doesn’t worry him based on the track record of his state’s manufacturing performance. Healy says that since the recession in 2009, there have been 44,000 manufacturing jobs lost in his state alone, and yet, the gross state product has increased by 18 percent since that time. “We’ve had a decline in workers, but we have experienced economic success even though there’s fewer people doing the job,” he said, adding, “and as a result the average person in manufacturing is handling 38 percent more in dollar value than they were in 2009.”
So while there is an overall smaller manufacturing workforce in Massachusetts, they’re still performing well, even excelling, in terms of economic output. “I think this is a result of a higher level of proficiency in the workplace exhibited by our manufacturers, but it’s just a matter of whether the next generation can step in and perform just as well,” Healy says, noting, “which is something we’re putting a lot of time and resources into ensuring is the case.”
Some of those efforts include his organization’s partnership with other local and national organizations such as the Massachusetts Workforce Central Career Center, Central Mass Regional Employment Board, and the Manufacturing Advancement Center Workforce Initiative Collaborative (MACWIC), in which they have worked together to improve workforce training not only for those coming out of high school and college looking for jobs, but also those already working in manufacturing in Massachusetts.
Healy says that the Massachusetts Workforce and Career Center and the Central Mass Regional Employment Board worked alongside his organization in providing employee and leadership training for smaller companies which don’t have the financial access to these kind of resources. “These smaller companies constitute a great majority of our manufacturing workforce, and we were able provide this training for them at no cost, which really helped,” he says. Healy says that the whole idea is to help companies develop a smarter, more efficient workforce, so they can have full confidence in their ability to seize an opportunity when presented.
One of these examples was from one of MASS MEP’s member companies, who were able to win an unprecedented contract with Wal-Mart, as they were able to meet Wal-Mart’s strict production schedule of thirteen weeks, which had them producing 25,000 boxes a day. “We were able to work with our client, and they are a small company, and help them meet their goals,” Healy says, adding, “now their product is one of the top-ten selling toys for Wal-Mart.
MACWIC, on the other hand, is a group of 113 manufacturers that represents about 19,400 employees whose manufacturing companies produce $ 6.2 billion dollar in annual sales. Healy says their wide-reaching view of the manufacturing scene has allowed them to develop a skills-based pyramid that helps educators at the high school and community college-level gain clarity in the practical skills that those students interested in manufacturing are going to need to know, such as blueprint reading and geometric tolerancing. “This skills pyramid developed by MACWIC has been very effective and we’re now seeing most vocational schools and community colleges adopting it and adhering by its standards,” Healy says, adding, “it’s exciting to see and is something I don’t think is being done anywhere else.”
Healy says that the whole process can be described as a “team effort. He says the way things are, given the way the economy is and the impending skills gap looming in the near future, has forced a state comprised mostly of small-sized manufacturers to band together and tackle the issues as one unit.
“The large manufacturing community, those over 500 employees, we lost about 60 percent of them, and this hurt because our manufacturing community relied on them for supplying their parts to and such,” he says. Now, without these big manufacturers in the state, Healy says that, “these smaller companies have realized that this is a shared battle amongst them and have done a great job working together to tackle these issues.”
And so far, the state of Massachusetts has been up to the task in establishing and maintaining an effective manufacturing scene. When compared to their counterparts in New England, Healy says that Massachusetts has “double the rate of growth in manufacturing” when looking at the growth in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Maine.
Massachusetts has a “little engine that could” feel to its manufacturing scene, with its smaller manufacturers showing that they too can make a very big impact in the present and future of manufacturing. And with the initiatives laid out and goals set forth, they look to continue full-steam ahead.
About MASS MEP
The Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MASS MEP) helps companies to grow and innovate as a Next Generation Manufacturer. They believe that an innovative, successful manufacturing base is the key to higher paying jobs and a higher quality of life in the Commonwealth.