Give manufacturers the right tools
Step into any high school classroom on career day, or check in at an unemployment center, and you are not likely to hear discussions about "manufacturing" as a future career possibility. That's too bad, because as a New England Council report pointed out last year, today's manufacturing opportunities are not necessarily what you might expect. The truth is, today's advanced manufacturing setting is more likely to be a safe, clean room environment, requiring employees with highly developed computer or engineering skills.According to the report, "Advanced Manufacturing in a Networked World," today's advanced manufacturing does not rely on low-cost labor and scale/volume, but rather on skills and creativity to produce highly specified and complex products. The industry does not exist as a set of isolated individual firms, but resides in a talent-rich network of engineers, business developers, entrepreneurs, scientists, financiers, machinists, and others.In New Hampshire alone, advanced manufacturing contributes nearly 9 percent of the state GDP, and over 7 percent of all jobs. Throughout New England, nearly 350,000 people are employed in advanced manufacturing. Its potential is enormous, not only in New Hampshire, but throughout the entire region.The question is this: how do we help create, promote and sustain advanced manufacturing as more and more of the region's traditional manufacturing base disappears? We need to be strategic in our thinking and creative in our approach to spur the growth of advanced manufacturing in our region.A national manufacturing strategy would provide a critical framework for thinking about how to reinvent manufacturing in this country. There is strong bipartisan support in Congress, and the recently introduced National Manufacturing Strategy Act of 2011 should be moved expeditiously through the legislative process.Designed to focus dedicated resources on an economic sector that offers enormous potential for the future, this bill calls for regular development of a national manufacturing plan and integration of new thinking about manufacturing into the annual budget process and other government efforts.We must also look at creative ways to nurture the emerging advanced manufacturing industry that is beginning to develop around us. For example, the Make it in America Block Grant legislation recently filed by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., was prompted by the incredible array of ideas that exist in small manufacturing businesses around Rhode Island, but don't quite have the resources to blossom into full-fledged job creation opportunities.The approach would give those states and communities that are struggling the most - like so many communities here in New England- assistance with resources to retool, retrofit, adapt, train and retrain employees to advance the production of clean-energy components, high-technology products and other advanced products. It is targeted help, for those small manufacturers that can offer the greatest promise for job creation.We need to align our educational and training efforts so that students and those transitioning within the workforce know what skills are needed, and how to attain them.Finally, we need to link existing manufacturing networks to premier shared services providers and networks - such as workforce development organizations, economic development leaders, and management consultancy groups such as the various state MEPs.Through a more focused collaboration of industry, government and education, advanced manufacturing can be enhanced and expanded. We have an opportunity to add between 7,500 and 8,500 advanced manufacturing jobs annually, with total compensation approaching $80,000, on average. That's worth our attention.James T. Brett is president and CEO of The New England Council.