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Lesser: Advanced manufacturing can lead us into the future

OPINION

By Eric P. Lesser
State Senator, 1st Hampden and Hampshire

Like countless other families, manufacturing allowed my family to pursue the American Dream. My grandfather was a tool and die maker in Brooklyn, and was able to support a family of five on that salary. It opened up the doors to a new world of opportunity for my dad and his siblings – and then for me.

Many families across Massachusetts share a similar story. The Bay State was a manufacturing center for generations: New Bedford and Lowell were textiles; Attleboro was shoes and jewelry; Holyoke was paper; Springfield was motorcycles; Pittsfield was General Electric. It helped create the middle-class we idealize today.

But as the economy changed in the 1980s and 90s, those jobs started to leave Massachusetts, and then the U.S. altogether. Since then, the Boston area has seen growth in booming industries like life sciences and technology. But those same jobs have not been created nearly fast enough in Western Mass.

That’s the well-known tale we are all familiar with. It’s time to change the conversation, and embrace a new generation of advanced manufacturing growth in Western Mass. Since October is officially “Manufacturing Month,” this is the perfect time to tell our new story.

On a recent tour of Chicopee Comprehensive High School’s Career and Technical Education program with Rep. Joe Wagner, we met several students who want to enter the trades because of their relationship to many of the devices we use daily. Grace Therou, for example, decided to enter the welding program after learning about its connection to making smartphone components.

We need to build solar panels, wind turbines and all kinds of equipment to propel us forward to a green, high-tech economy. Luckily, there are many great jobs available. Now comes the challenging of filling them. A 2018 survey of 41 manufacturing shops in the Pioneer Valley projects at least 1,400 new jobs will be available for production workers over the next three years.  But our trade schools will only graduate 302 young people from their programs over that time span.

That’s not due to lack of effort. We have outstanding programs in Western Massachusetts, but vocational education was slighted for too long. Fortunately, we’re changing that, with increased Chapter 70 funding that will allow schools to hire more teachers and help close the 3,200-person statewide waitlist.

As co-chair of the Manufacturing Caucus with Rep. Jeffrey Roy of Franklin, we are working to boost career and technical education in a variety of ways. Our Commonwealth’s Skills Capital Grants Program and Advanced Manufacturing Training Program provide grants to schools to buy additional equipment and offer enhanced workforce development services. We also want to support workers themselves, which is why we’re pushing our Future of Work plan. One of our proposals would create a state matching program to help fund worker training courses.

This is not your grandfather’s manufacturing; this is a cutting-edge field. With proper support, we can ensure manufacturing serves as a gateway to opportunity and stability for future generations, just as it did for my family.

Eric P. Lesser represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in the Massachusetts Senate. He is Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies.