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Archived: Regional Study Sheds Light on Massachusetts Manufacturing’s Future

Posted on June 16, 2014

The Massachusetts tradition of small and medium-size manufacturing enterprises scattered across a typical New England landscape has a future – if challenges such as workforce availability, regulation, and access to new markets are met. An extensive study and survey of industries in the state’s North Central region, conducted by RTI International and the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP) in association with AIM and other organizations as part of the Collaborative Communities Manufacturing Growth Initiative for the region, highlights both the capabilities of our manufacturing sector and the potential barriers to its continued success.

The North Central region, comprising 15 cities and towns in the Fitchburg-Leominster area, is nominally rural; the study was funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture competitive grant program “to promote sustainable economic development in rural communities.” But it also has the highest proportion of manufacturing employment in the Commonwealth, at 19.7%, with concentrations of metal fabrication, machining, and plastics molding. There is less tech industry than in eastern Massachusetts and less food preparation than western regions, but the long-term erosion of manufacturing employment fits the statewide pattern. The area’s population is older than average.

The survey provides a foundation for Phase II of the initiative, Technology-Driven Market Intelligence (TDMI), an approach based on NASA technology transfer work adapted to small and medium enterprise (SME) manufacturers. The focus will be on four advanced manufacturing subsectors prevalent in the region (Chemicals & Plastics, Fabricated Metal Products & Machining, Computer & Electronic Products, Paper & Printing), matching their manufacturing capabilities with market opportunities. For example, new opportunities for the region’s long-established tool and mold industries arise from changes in the automotive industry and from the introduction of fracking and of 3-D printing.

The most important barriers to growth for manufacturing, as identified by the survey, are workforce (number one by far), regulatory constraints, and access to new market opportunities. Workforce issues include, among others, lack of advanced skills such as machining, disinclination of young people to enter manufacturing, and competition for workers from larger companies and metropolitan areas. Regulatory concerns cover a range from employer mandates to export licensing to tax structure. Marketing challenges arise from the decline of existing “clusters” and disruption of established supply chains. Technology is a prominent concern for some firms and industries.

The overall goal of the initiative is to establish a “collaborative manufacturing community” that will enable sustained growth in the region.  Employers are looking for improved outreach and information about service offerings, with advice and services tailored to company needs (and especially to small businesses).  Workforce services, they believe, should include not only training, but also a placement clearinghouse to fill critical positions. Progress in that direction will depend upon enhanced collaboration among both service providers, through a “steering committee” of statewide and regional organizations, and employers, for example by means of a CEO roundtable group (perhaps using AIM’s CEO Connection as a platform).

AIM is pleased to have been involved in this study, and that its results recognize our ongoing work; we look forward to continuing our engagement in later phases of the undertaking. We note that the economic development legislation that recently passed the House includes funding for similar initiatives in western and southeastern Massachusetts. Beyond their specific regional value, studies such as this are of particular interest to AIM as we prepare a Blueprint for the Next Century in preparation for our centennial next year.