Op-ed: Taking steps to close the skills gap in Western Mass.

In MassLive 4/15/17

This winter, I brought several of my colleagues on a tour of a state-of-the-art facility filled with computerized modeling software and high-tech instruments. There, I chatted with workers who were locally trained in cutting-edge technology. They spoke with pride about their ability to provide a good life for their families. We weren't in Boston, but in Chicopee, where an advanced manufacturing company called Hoppe Technologies has been operating for over 74 years.

The Pioneer Valley has been a manufacturing hub for over two centuries, starting with the Springfield Armory. But our region is at risk of losing its competitive edge because of difficulty attracting, developing, and retaining a high-quality workforce.

The precision manufacturing industry, which makes components for things like jet engines, semiconductors and electronics, is flourishing here in Western Mass., representing more than half of all manufacturing jobs in Hampden and Hampshire Counties.

But there's a big problem: over the next 10 years, more than 44,000 jobs in this industry will go unfilled in Massachusetts, due to a lack of qualified workers. This presents a lot of wasted potential and a major threat to our economic well-being, especially since the average salary in this industry can approach $75,000.

To bridge this gap, we must help our schools and training programs prepare enough workers to fill the local, high-paying jobs available in this cutting-edge field.

Fortunately, we don't have to look far for examples of great training programs. Chicopee Comprehensive High School's machine tool technology program has seen great success. The Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative, where I recently visited, is working on innovative programs to improve technical training for local high school students. And the Smith & Wesson Applications Center at STCC, which I toured shortly after its opening, received a large grant this year to fund new degree programs in device manufacturing.

In the State Senate, I'm working with my colleagues on several policies to close the skills gap. One priority is continued funding of the Workforce Development Grant Program, which includes a precision manufacturing pilot program here in Hampden County. I've also co-sponsored legislation to create a state-level "new market tax credit" that would stimulate private sector investment, growth and job creation in low-income communities. Finally, to attract more high-tech, high-growth businesses, I authored legislation to offer incentives for investors who target their funds at entrepreneurs located in cities like Chicopee, Springfield and other locations outside Greater Boston.

The Pioneer Valley has a proud history of manufacturing. Let's build on what we do well and ensure our middle class stays vibrant for generations to come. Preparing our local residents for careers in high-growth fields like precision manufacturing is one of the best ways to do that, which is why I will continue to champion it in the legislature.

Eric Lesser is State Senator for the First Hampden & Hampshire District.