- On March 25, 2019
WORCESTER — With one program or ad campaign, John Killam wishes he could persuade a whole generation of middle school and high school students to share his excitement over manufacturing in Massachusetts and the more than 130,000 high-paying jobs open to them. But he knows solving the industry’s biggest hindrance to further growth — an overwhelming shortage in new, skilled labor — will not be so easy. That’s why when Mr. Killam, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP), discusses the strength of the state’s manufacturing industries, he switches between tones of confidence and uncertainty. Manufacturers have backlogs of orders even as new orders roll in; yet with an aging workforce and a trickling pipeline of new labor, who will work the machines to fulfill them? Opportunities for growth abound — new employees do not. MassMEP continues to work toward an answer to the skills gap, though. For one, Mr. Killam and others are trying to develop a framework for an apprentice program that can lead young people directly into a job on a manufacturing floor.
How would you describe the state of Massachusetts manufacturing?
Strong. Business is really good. Opportunities for growth are abundant. The state is supporting manufacturing through a number of initiatives to help manufacturers find the right people and train people. This is a wonderful place for manufacturing. We have some of the best universities in the world to work with to create new ideas and new products. Our mantra with many of our manufacturers has been: If you thought of it here, you should be able to make it here. We’re seeing that more of that now than we did in the mid-2000s. I work with 49 other MEP centers in the country, and in my view, Massachusetts is the most progressive state in terms of innovation and providing resources to help manufacturing companies succeed. There is no other state that compares with us.
What has driven this streak of growth?
Massachusetts is not necessarily a state that has a lot of original equipment manufacturers. We don’t have those big companies here. We have a few — Raytheon, General Dynamics. But we’re not middle-American, where we have the big manufacturing car companies that drive big supply chains. Massachusetts is made up of many smaller manufacturers who specialize in or provide unique services in many different industries. We have a lot of job shops that can really provide one-offs or prototypes — and do it quickly. Each sector is driven by different industries: We’re not just relying on automotive for example. We have many different customers to go to, so we’ve been able to spread the sales out.
Why are you so concerned about the future then?
The challenge is while the manufacturers have orders, and they’re getting new orders, and they’re being asked to quote on even more new orders, they do not have enough people to do the job. That has become our bottleneck to accelerate growth.
Germany’s apprenticeship program has been key to meeting their labor needs in manufacturing. Why has a similar system not caught on here?
The problem with apprenticeships in Massachusetts is we don’t have a certificate or an apprenticeship that’s been recognized by all the manufacturers as the right certificate or the right credential. So MassMEP and others are working to create a system with a board that oversees the apprenticeship programs to make sure they’re legitimate and fill the needs of the manufacturers. The problem is, this is good for down the line, but it doesn’t do anything today. That’s still my concern. We have 130,000 open jobs here today.
What are you doing today to help fill them?
We’re working on a program called Manufacturing Your Future. We’re meeting with manufacturers and connecting kids at high schools with manufacturers in the region to try to help fill the void. The message is pretty simple: Somebody has to get to kids before they make a round decision after high school; somebody has to make them aware of the wonderful opportunities that exist in Massachusetts manufacturing. There’s upward mobility, training, tuition reimbursement, and the salary is pretty darn good. But kids and parents have not tried to steer their kids towards it because they don’t understand what it entails.
Do manufacturers need to alter their picture of the perfect employee?
As you know, manufacturing can be costly, and usually the biggest part of your cost is labor. So, when a manufacturing company hires somebody, it really wants people who have a short-learning curve and who can ramp up very quickly; they can do shop math, read a blueprint and use measuring devices. The problem is there are not many people out there who can do that, so manufacturers have to change their thought processes. Someone has to develop that talent, so you send them to a technical school or you train them yourself. Unfortunately, many businesses aren’t good trainers, even though they know how to do it. If you’re going to be successful in manufacturing, you have to start thinking more innovative around how you’re going to find people, and how you’re going to maintain people. That’s going to be seen in new training programs where people feel wanted and important and feel they have a path to grow. It will take a change from the leaders in our manufacturing community.
— Compiled by Correspondent Matthew Tota