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Manufacturing in Massachusetts:
Teaching a Younger Workforce New Skills
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — After decades of economic decline, Western Massachusetts is trying to put the pieces together for a new industrial boom.
An alliance of government, academic, and business leaders is betting that by providing the right skills to the next generation of workers, this part of the state can fill empty manufacturing positions and boost its flagging employment rate. They are focusing on what is known as the “skills gap,” the disparity between what today’s employers need and the skills young people coming out of high school and college have — or don’t have.
Programs like the advanced manufacturing center at Putnam Vocational-Technical Academy put underemployed trainees like Shaniqua Owens inside a machine shop for night classes that teach them to read blueprints, perform precision calculations, and operate tool mills that create parts for local aerospace, medical, and biotech companies.
Owens, 26, is a Springfield native who dropped out of Springfield Technical Community College in 2009 after her mother died.
“My younger brother needed additional guidance at the time, and I also wasn’t as focused,” she said.
Owens bounced around between jobs, weighed down by $15,000 in student loans she had accrued while pursuing the degree she didn’t complete. Last fall she tried FutureWorks, a career center in downtown Springfield, where she saw a flyer for the manufacturing class at Putnam. The Hampden Regional Employment board reports a 75 percent job placement rate for the advanced training programs they oversee, which includes Putnam.
After three months of free training at the recently renovated shop, Owens graduated with what’s called a MACWIC certificate, an industry credential recognized across the state. She said she’s certain she wants to work as a machinist.
“I like to work with my hands and it’s important to learn how things work and are made,” Owens said. “I think it is important for young people like us to be involved in these jobs.”
Among young adults aged 16-24, Western Massachusetts has an employment rate below the state average — 58.8 percent versus 64.3 percent, according to a report by the UMass Donahue Institute. The numbers are even lower when looking at racial and ethnic groups.
But with Massachusetts expected to add 30,000 new manufacturing jobs by the end of the decade, according to a new report from RTI International, and Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration offering millions of dollars in grants to programs like Putnam, young jobseekers like Owens see opportunity.
Right now she’s working at Five Guys burger chain to pay bills while looking for the right job in manufacturing.
“Now that I have that job, I don’t have to worry about bills. So I can focus completely on finding a manufacturing job that can launch my career,” Owens said.
She has been meeting with an advisor at the Hampden County Regional Board for one-on-one counseling and leads on job openings. Now that she has a set schedule at the restaurant, she says, she is dead-set on finding a career that draws on her new skills.
Farther north in Greenfield, 28-year-old Matthew Foskett decided it was time to quit his job as a pizza delivery driver and enroll in an advanced manufacturing program last fall.
The program was coordinated by the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment board with help from Greenfield Community College and took place at Franklin Technical School in Turner Falls, Mass. It has been running for four years and is expected to run until December 2017.
The employment board received a national employment grant from the Department of Labor for $334,000 that was used to train laid-off workers for two and half years. Since then the employment board has received state grants from the office of housing and economic development. Local employers also raised $200,000 to update the machine shop at Franklin Technical.
The program graduated its 100th student in June. According to data collected by the employment board, the program has an 84 percent placement rate, and is free to all accepted applicants.
Foskett graduated from UMass Amherst in 2012 as an economics major.
“After college, I would do jobs like that and also work for my dad, who works home improvement such as siding and roofing,” Foskett said.
He is now working for Kennametal, an advanced manufacturer with a shop in Greenfield, and joined their union. He is currently making $22/hr and will be up for evaluation in a few months to see if he can get a raise.
“I really just want to work in this career for the next few years,” Foskett said. “That way I can save up and have a good foundation to see what the next steps for my future are.”
Patricia Crosby, executive director of the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board, which helps to facilitate the program in Greenfield, said Foskett’s story is common.
“Young adults leave the area to pursue their dreams, sometimes as an artist or musician,” she said. “Then I see them again at 28, 29, when they are tired of working at a cafe and want something stable.”
Greenfield and Springfield were booming industrial hubs during the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s . These towns were located next to the Connecticut River. The water helped power mills and factories and served as a link between towns. Soon water power turned into steam power and manufacturing began to evolve.
Greenfield produced American tools while Springfield had a diverse industrial footprint, producing automobile parts and guns. During this time, the U.S. commanded a huge percentage of the global market in manufacturing and the majority of these companies were locally owned.
“What was great about the the River Valley for manufacturing was that you could have the best tools and the material because the companies were right next door,” said Robert Forrant, a history professor at UMass Lowell.
However, by 1960, countries like Germany and Japan caught up with the U.S. The manufacturing sector began to decline in the 70s when the manufacturing companies in the area were bought up by bigger companies, which moved plants and the jobs that went with them to more cost-effective regions.
Forrant was one of those automobile plant workers whose job was eliminated after his factory was purchased. He was able to go back to school and became a historian. He now teaches at UMass Lowell.
“We will never have one big manufacturer come back and provide thousands of jobs. We are simply past those times,” Forrant said.
Yet even though manufacturing will not return to its former glory, the paradox is that employers in the region still are having a hard time filling the jobs that are available, creating a “skills gap” which on a national scale represents 6 million open positions.
The Massachusetts manufacturing sector is highly specialized and mainly comprised of small- to medium-sized companies. In fact, 70 percent of advanced manufacturing companies in Massachusetts have fewer than 20 employees and small companies like these do not have the resources to hire entry-level candidates and build them up.
“The biggest barrier we hear from our clients is work readiness, but they cannot find candidates with specialized skills. Now what they want is people who are capable,” said Ted Bauer, director of workforce strategies at MassMEP.
MassMEP is a nonprofit based in Boston that helps provide growth and innovation strategies to manufacturing companies across the state. They helped develop standardized certifications for these workforce training programs that are recognized by employers across the state.
“It’s like we are going back in time. Back in the 1970s, vocational schools used to be open after hours. Now we are going back to do the same to address the needs of employers,” said Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, whose administration has helped support advanced manufacturing programs including the one at Putnam Vocational-Technical Academy.
In nearby West Springfield, an advanced manufacturing training program was led by instructor Derrick Hedley, an employee of Smith and Wesson who began his own career as an apprentice.
The program was coordinated by the Hampden County Regional Employment board, supported by the Massachusetts Office of Housing and Economic Development.
As Hedley helped students craft their final project, a trinket box machined by hand, he talked about changes in manufacturing here.
“Anyone can do this job, it’s no longer a dirty, physical job,” Hedley said. “The machines do most of the work.”
Hedley, who is in his late 50s, holds a manufacturing engineering degree from Western New England University. He said even if the machines do most of the heavy lifting, it still takes skill to run the machine.
And these workers represent an important part of the manufacturing ecosystem: the supply chain.
At the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a public agency dedicated towards advancing innovation in the manufacturing sector, Ira Moskowitz, director of advanced manufacturing programs, explained.
“Having a more complete manufacturing supply chain in Massachusetts is important because both pioneering technologies and commercializing them maximizes the impact of innovation,” Moskowitz said.
Meanwhile the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board is figuring out the future for its program in Turner Falls, which is coming to an end.
“We have enough funding to run one more program in the fall,” said Andrew Baker, special projects coordinator at the board. “There has actually been an uptick in applicants who heard this might be our last program.”
Baker said he hopes to continue their program with a new combination of funds: smaller state appropriations, federal Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act funds which will help those who come through career centers, and possibly some scholarship funds from their employer partners.
The Turner Falls program is not alone in its funding challenges. Although these programs aim to help adults obtain gainful employment, behind-the-scenes people like Baker are constantly on the lookout for grants, filling out application after application for highly competitive funding opportunities.
And even with the skills training she received at Putnam, 26-year-old Shaniqua Owens has encountered some setbacks in obtaining a job. Owens said a lot of the jobs in the Springfield area are not entry-level and her lack of a car limits her employment options.
“There is this entry-level position I see on Indeed.com all the time but it’s in Greenfield and there is no way I’m going to get there,” she said, “Two of my classmates got a manufacturing job in Springfield that I also applied for.”
Owens had her most recent interview for a manufacturing job in August, but didn’t get that job either. She said she continues to fill out applications every day.
“It’s frustrating when I don’t meet one requirement, but I still fill them out,” Owens said. “I’m hopeful that I will get a callback in the future.”
This story was made possible with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.