Conventional wisdom on manufacturing tells us that it is a declining industry with few pathways to lifelong, lucrative careers for young people making decisions about their futures. It’s time to seriously question that way of thinking.

Yes. The data tells us that manufacturing jobs have been on rapid decline since the 1980s. But according to the Department of Unemployment Assistance/Bureau of Labor Statistics, that decline is starting to slow and, in fact, in northeast Massachusetts, manufacturing jobs grew by 1% from 2016 to 2018. It also continues to be the second-largest industry employer in the northeast region (in Essex County alone, 41,361 people work in manufacturing) and paid the highest total wages in 2018: $1.4 billion.

According to the Northeast Advanced Manufacturing Consortium (NAMC), manufacturing also has the oldest workforce among major job sectors, with 34% of employees over the age of 55 and 62% over the age of 45. As a result of this aging workforce, there are ample high-paying manufacturing jobs available every year.

So contrary to conventional wisdom, there are many opportunities here.

The challenge, however, is that manufacturing is becoming more advanced and requires more highly skilled workers and training with modern tools, teaching and facilities.

This is a challenge being met by a new $4.5 million combined workforce development investment by GE Foundation, the charitable arm of General Electric Company – now headquartered in Boston with a large manufacturing site on the North Shore – and the Baker-Polito administration’s Workforce Skills Cabinet. Together with a coalition of educators, employers, workforce organizations, government agencies and nonprofits, this new initiative – focused on the North Shore – will address the manufacturing skills gap by supporting and coordinating training for adult learners and high school students and connecting them to full-time work that meets the needs of employers in the region.

The goal of this Advanced Manufacturing Training Expansion Program is to train more than 900 students and adults for advanced manufacturing careers by 2024. To get there, the initiative will focus on the following improvements across the system:

-- Expanding the teaching capacity footprint. This includes investing in significant infrastructure updates at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute, launching the first-ever adult program at Gloucester High School, expanding the Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School programming, and increasing the number of and building capacity among advanced manufacturing educators at area technical schools.

-- Maximizing enrollment for youth and adult learners. This includes creating targeted recruitment strategies with parents, teachers, guidance counselors and students; promoting knowledge about advanced manufacturing as a career and providing educational remediation support for those entering the program.

-- Translating training into careers. This includes the expansion of apprenticeship programs and providing career support and mentorship to ensure student success in the workforce.

Additional partners to those already mentioned include North Shore Community College, MassHire and E-Team, a Lynn-based nonprofit machinist training program. Essex County Community Foundation has assumed the fiduciary responsibility for the GE Foundation grant money and will act as a strategic community partner.

Together, these partners are using a systems approach to solving a regional economic challenge for manufacturing employers in the area, and with an anticipated increase in the talent pipeline, it will likely promote growth and innovation in the industry. At the same time, it has the potential to boost the financial outlook for many residents and families in Essex County, where nearly 300,000 people are living below the living wage.

Each and every partner involved in the work plays a critical role in the larger system, from North Shore Community College, which will offer foundational literacy and mathematics training to better prepare adult learners entering the program, to MassHire and NAMC, which will engage local manufacturing employers in the effort.

“This initiative is an incredible example of the private, public and nonprofit sectors working together to tackle an issue at its roots,” said ECCF President and CEO Beth Francis. “ECCF believes that systems work is the most impactful way to create sustainable social change, and we are so proud to play a role in this effort that will boost the region’s economy and create financial pathways for residents through workforce development.”

ECCF is midway through its own systems initiative that is, in part, providing resources to directly increase the strength and resiliency of the region’s workforce. Empowering Economic Opportunity, a collection of projects that capitalizes on collaborations with a variety of critical partners across Essex County, includes a Credit for Prior Learning (CPL) program. Based on North Shore Community College’s nationally recognized program, it unites area colleges and universities, workforce investment boards and employers in the creation of a regional CPL program that will enable adults living below the living wage to attain a college degree, resulting in a better prepared workforce with increased earning potential.

When you invest in a system that brings so many people to the table to solve a regional challenge, you can create population-level impact that is sustainable for years to come. The goal of this new advanced manufacturing investment is to sustain training levels long after GE Foundation funds are spent.

“I am proud of the level of collaboration that went into making this center and program possible,” said Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy when the announcement of the $4.5 million investment was made late last year at Lynn Tech. “This partnership with the GE Foundation to create a future workforce that will strengthen the regional economy on the North Shore stands as an example of what is possible when state government and private partners work together.”

“With support from the Baker-Polito administration and Congressman Seth Moulton, the GE Foundation and our partners are building a diverse, well-trained workforce that will accelerate advanced manufacturing across the North Shore,” said Linda Boff, President of GE Foundation and vice president for GE.

Stratton Lloyd is COO and vice president for community leadership at the Essex County Community Foundation.

 

 

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