High-tech manufacturing experiencing renaissance in Western Mass.

In Masslive 2/15/17

There are many reasons for optimism about our region's economy. Springfield's skyline is dotted with cranes, and the next two years will see Union Station, the CRRC rail-car plant and the MGM Springfield casino open and come to life. Together, these developments represent billions of dollars in new investment and hundreds of new jobs.

But there is another economic trend worth our attention. It's more difficult to see because it largely plays out at local, family-owned shops up and down the Pioneer Valley. It's a renaissance in high-tech manufacturing - and the high-paying jobs that go with it.

Companies like Dielectrics in Chicopee, Meridian Industrial in Holyoke, FloDesign in Wilbraham and Advance Welding in Springfield are using cutting-edge techniques and highly skilled Western Massachusetts workers to make components for medical devices, aircraft engines, wind turbines and sonar systems sold all over the world.

Despite our leadership in this cutting-edge field, our region is not producing enough skilled workers to fill the available jobs. As a result, there are vacancies across Western Massachusetts and thousands more projected in the coming years. This shortage will become even more pronounced once the CRRC railcar plant comes on line.

Failure to address this skills gap is more than a statistic: it's a threat to our economic future.

Wages in this high-tech field can approach averages of $75,000 a year. Imagine the billions of dollars in lost potential if we allow those positions to go unfilled, denying thousands of families the chance to buy homes, save for retirement and invest in the Western Massachusetts economy.

Eventually, we would do permanent damage to our economy because manufacturers will move somewhere with a steadier supply of skilled workers.

That's why I spent so much time focused on manufacturing policy last session, as Senate chair of the Legislature's Manufacturing Caucus.

It's also why, in the new legislative session, we need to expand and improve our vocational education programs, especially in high-tech manufacturing, and incentivize collaboration between local employers and local educators.

High quality training is especially important given the competitive nature of modern manufacturing. Workers are expected to operate complex, multi-million dollar machines and the computer systems that control them. This requires mathematics and engineering skills, along with the ability to adopt new technologies like 3-D printing.

Luckily, many of our region's leaders and organizations are preparing the next generation of high-tech workers in innovative ways.

The machine tool technology programs at Chicopee Comprehensive High School and Putnam Vocational-Technical Academy are statewide models.

On a college level, the Smith & Wesson Applications Center at Springfield Technical Community College continues to see record enrollment and placement.

And for those striving to enter the workforce, the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County and the Western Massachusetts chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association run a pilot program for unemployed and under-employed workers, including veterans, an initiative my colleagues and I substantially increased funding for last session.

There are many new initiatives aimed at supporting the Pioneer Valley's high-tech manufacturing scene.

Valley Venture Mentors, for example, launched a manufacturing accelerator to help local manufacturers get connected to new business opportunities.

Greentown Labs, a clean-energy incubator in Somerville, is opening an office at the Springfield Technical Community College Technology Park in Springfield to connect start-ups in eastern Massachusetts with manufacturing companies here, the fruits of an initiative led by House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Tech Foundry in Springfield is pioneering new workforce training techniques and continues to grow and attract applicants.

These public-private partnerships need more support from Beacon Hill so they can continue to foster a vibrant, high-tech ecosystem in Greater Springfield. We also need to do a better job marketing the high-tech manufacturing scene in Western Massachusetts and showing young people the type of futures they can have in this fast-paced industry.

Ever since George Washington placed the Armory here, Springfield - and the Pioneer Valley - has had a proud history of making some of the world's most important and innovative products, from the first monkey-wrench to the first gas-powered automobile, from Rolls Royce cars to the rifles that won World War II. We have been a high-tech center for centuries. Now, it's time to recapture that spirit for the next generation.

Last year, I worked with my colleagues to secure funding for a new high-tech manufacturing program at the Lower Pioneer Valley Education Collaborative. The program is a partnership between nine area school districts, local employers and the state. During one of several visits, I met a high-school student who was learning to fashion aluminum for jet engines and other machines. He showed the same pride as my paternal grandfather, who worked as a tool-and-die maker his entire career.

At 18 years old, this young student will graduate and enter a high-tech field with clear pathways for advancement. After a few years, he can use his new skills and networks to open a local shop of his own. The products he makes will be used across the world, in some of the most important and competitive fields, from clean energy to aviation to healthcare. People will rely on his work to grow food, ship goods, fly planes, power cities and do everything else essential to powering our modern economy. And he will do it close to his home and his family, without having to move to Boston or New York or San Francisco, and without taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

As a new year begins, let's work to make sure we give thousands more people in Western Massachusetts the same opportunity.

State Sen. Eric P. Lesser, D-Longmeadow, is co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Manufacturing Caucus and co-chair of the Gateway Cities Caucus. He represents the 1st Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

Op-edEric Lesser