BOSTON New England’s manufacturing sector is often viewed as a dwindling, weakened force that is much more a piece of our past than a relevant component of our present economy.
But the reality is manufacturing is still a strong sector for the region: it just looks different. Last year, Rhode Island , for example, exported $1.68 billion in manufactured goods, and manufacturing remains a critical piece of the local economy.
Despite this success, it will take a partnership among New England policymakers, business leaders and academia to fully realize the opportunities presented by modern, high-tech advanced manufacturing.
Today it’s the knowledge economy that drives so much wealth and has become the key to a new industrial age. This is an opportunity for all of the New England states and citizens at all income levels. But we will only reap the benefits by making the correct investments and taking the proper actions.
The use of highly precise components, product customization and complex designs are pushing the need for better technology and a more highly skilled workforce. Already, nearly 60 percent of the more than 640,000 manufacturing jobs region-wide are categorized as “advanced.”
That means that New England is uniquely positioned to enhance the industry’s success since the most common requirements of emerging and growing technologies are right in our wheelhouse. Consider where our region’s manufacturing strengths lie: aerospace and defense, medical devices and biotechnology, semiconductors and complex electronics. We also have region-wide capabilities in software, artificial intelligence, robotics and advanced materials, which further strengthen these core industry clusters.
But we face challenges that must be addressed. On top of New England’s high cost of doing business, we have a shortage of qualified labor. There is also a general lack of awareness of the employment opportunities in advanced manufacturing.
Small and medium-sized manufacturers also struggle to scale effectively and adopt emerging technologies at the rate demanded by their larger colleagues and competitors. We have the ability to provide vital technical assistance, and we should do so.
Every challenge we face also represents an opportunity to be harnessed. And we can accomplish that with a comprehensive plan.
The New England Council, in partnership with Deloitte Consulting LLP, recently published a study that assesses the state of advanced manufacturing in the region and offers several key recommendations to best position New England to grow its advanced manufacturing sector for future generations of middle-class workers. Indeed, this report acts as a roadmap for New England’s sustained industry advantage.
The first stop: industry partnerships and apprenticeships. Our region must expand collaboration between industry and educational institutions so that students are not only ready to work, but can generate new ideas and spur innovation. We also need more connective tissue in the education pathway. This means a fully integrated system beginning in high school that carries through higher educational institutions, technical and vocational education, internships and work experience. An entire silo of our education system ought to be dedicated to creating the manufacturing workforce of the future.
Additionally, we must develop the programs and support necessary to help small and medium-sized entrepreneurs and manufacturers grow to scale.
New England policymakers must play a leadership role in aligning public policy with the needs of this industry. An important step would be to secure a federally-supported National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) institute in our region, a “teaching factory” that would serve as a resource for industry here and nationwide.
Lastly, the report calls for building a better brand. Even when we call it advanced, “manufacturing” sounds old and tired. The truth is we are at the cusp of a real “maker revolution.” And that far better reflects the high pay, critical thinking, advanced technologies and innovative designs that define it.
Our region is at a real turning point and it is critical that stakeholders from industry, academia, and government heed this call to action and respond appropriately. If we are to cement New England’s ongoing legacy as a leader in manufacturing, it will take a collaborative effort from Newport to Bangor.
John Hailer is chairman of the New England Council, and president and CEO for Natixis Global Asset Management in the Americas and Asia. James Brett is the New England Council’s president and CEO.
This essay originally appeared on The Providence Journal's Commentary pages.