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Mass Live: Sen. Eric Lesser: High-tech manufacturing experiencing renaissance in Western Mass.

NTMA featured in Mass Live article.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

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.

Read more here.