Manufacturers facing dearth of younger skilled workers in next decade

By 
Colleen Quinn, State House News Service
Nov. 28, 2012

Manufacturing in Massachusetts faces a threat to its survival as older manufacturing workers retire without younger workers in line to replace them, according to a recent study.

During the next decade, approximately 100,000 manufacturing jobs will open up as older workers retire. Manufacturing firms will find it tough to replace them because younger workers are not attracted to the sector, according to Barry Bluestone, director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.

The outlook for manufacturing was discussed during the first meeting of the Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative – a group of executives, industry experts and state economic development officials organized to strengthen the sector.

The 100,000 figure – or 10,000 jobs a year – is based on flat growth in manufacturing, Bluestone said. The number of jobs could be higher.

Part of the Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative’s mission will be to reverse the trend by encouraging more young people to look at manufacturing jobs.

Many people are stuck in an “old cognitive map,” Bluestone said, thinking of manufacturing as old smokestack businesses that lack appeal for younger workers.

“This is a problem we have,” he said. “We are so focused on going to college and getting a degree in finance and health sciences, we forget there are 10,000 jobs a year in manufacturing.”

In a survey of manufacturers, approximately two-thirds said they expect to expand their businesses in the near future, something that could prove difficult if they cannot find workers, Bluestone said.

Massachusetts is not alone in facing the problem of finding skilled manufacturing workers. Companies in other states experience the same difficulty, Bluestone said, while the number of manufacturing workers grow in countries like China and India.

Massachusetts workers need to recognize that manufacturing provides opportunities for good-paying, stable jobs, particularly for people without bachelor’s degrees, Bluestone said.

Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray told the group he wants to see manufacturing return as the third largest employment sector in the state.

“I think that is doable,” Murray said at the close of the meeting. “The question is are we ready for it? Are we training and educating people.”

Manufacturing jobs totaled 250,656 in the first quarter of 2012; health care and social assistance jobs topped the list with 515,047 and the retail trade came in second with 343,312 jobs; Professional and technical services jobs totaled 260,791 and accommodation and food services had 252,280 jobs, according to figures from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

The Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative was created by the Legislature as part of the economic development law signed in August as a formalized way to pull together experts to boost manufacturing and give the industry a way to voice concerns. Prior to passage of the law, many in the group met informally for some time to collaborate and address concerns of manufacturers.

In addition to Bluestone, the collaborative includes a large group of business, state and university officials, including Eric Nakajima, assistant secretary of innovation policy for the Executive Office of Economic Development; Brian Gilmore, executive vice president of government affairs at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts; Marty Jones, chief executive of MassDevelopment; Susan Windham Bannister, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center; Ken Hill from Raytheon Corp., and Nancy Snyder and Marybeth Campbell from the Commonwealth Corporation.