It was a beautiful day flying from Minneapolis to Boston. I had landed at Logan Airport about 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. No problem, this was back in the early ‘90s, when I worked for Digital Equipment. I walked to the waiting helicopter at Terminal B.
As we took off, I couldn’t help but notice the traffic gridlock in all directions. The Southeast Expressway, Routes 93, 128, 3 — everything seemed to be a parking lot, but we headed north at about 1,500 feet with no one to stop us. As we crossed the border into New Hampshire, the traffic was still snarled. We landed on the helipad at Digital’s Salem plant on Northeastern Boulevard.
I got out of the chopper, ducking through the prop wash (just like in the movies), and walked to my waiting car. Even when there’s nobody watching, it’s fun to arrive by helicopter. It makes you feel like you might actually be somebody. I think I was home for dinner by 5:30!
Those were the good old days. Computers were high-margin products, and we knew how to spend our profits. We never spent everything; we had to leave enough to accelerate our stock to new highs. Many of us were stockholders, so that was important.
How the world has changed. Digital’s Magic Kingdom is no more, having been swallowed up first by Compaq, and then by Hewlett Packard. The Salem plant closed and was eventually bought by Cisco right before the dot-com bubble burst. Then Cisco felt the squeeze, so they had Celestica, a subcontractor, take up operations there.
Now the facility is closing again. About 420 Celestica people are losing their jobs, and a number of Cisco people will be transferred to a Massachusetts location.
Not counting the warehouse, that facility is about the size of six football fields under one roof — perhaps the biggest manufacturing facility in New Hampshire. Its recent tenants were probably using only a fraction of the available floor space.
As I drive around, I can’t help but notice there are a number of other sizable facilities (Teradyne, Sanmina, etc.) that are empty as well. The Northeast doesn’t seem to be making the cut as a viable manufacturing location in our new global economy.
Yes, we still have strong manufacturers, but as a whole, we’ve lost an awful lot of our better jobs. Trying to sound optimistic, local politicians make the empty facilities and available labor sound like potential drawing cards to attract companies, but there doesn’t seem to be a stampede of any sort to take advantage of these marvelous opportunities.
Could it be, perchance, that these opportunities aren’t as marvelous as we would like to think? Where is the “New Hampshire Advantage?” Could it pale against the China advantage? Are Manchester and Nashua not booming like Bangalore or Manila or Singapore?
If so, what can we do about it? Wishful thinking, hoping and even begging aren’t likely to have much of an effect. Ignoring the problem doesn’t seem to be helping much either.
Politicians and pundits say we shouldn’t worry. Lowly manufacturing jobs will be replaced by better jobs — knowledge jobs for instance. Sounds good to me, except knowledge jobs seem to be flying offshore even faster than the manufacturing jobs. Is anyone paying attention here?
Yes, the Digital facility had managers and engineers, but it had a lot of manufacturing workers too. In fact, I’ll bet they were the majority. Where are they going to work? After their “lowly,” but high-paying, manufacturing jobs, they may find flipping burgers or working in retail a bit underwhelming.
Admittedly, the world is changing, and in the long run, it may be for the better. In the meantime, we have a lot of unemployed and under-employed people with families and mortgages and all those kinds of things. What should they do?
I don’t think protectionism is a solution, but I do think our governments should be doing a few things.
I think the governor should call a summit of business and government leaders. Our unemployed and underemployed are not paying the taxes they used to pay, and it looks like there are going to be a lot more people in that predicament.
Topics for the summit could include questions like:
• What can we do to make New Hampshire more competitive with offshore locations?
• Should we cut government spending now, knowing that we’re likely to see a dramatic revenue shortfall?
• What training would help us become more competitive with offshore labor? (We shouldn’t be naïve enough to think low pay is their only advantage.)
• What should our kids be learning in school to enable them to be competitive in the global job market?
• What do we think the federal government should do (e.g., eliminate tax breaks that encourage moving operations offshore, etc.)?
Our state is like a mega-business. We can’t spend more than we make indefinitely, and preparing now may help us weather the coming storm. We might even be able to improve the New Hampshire Advantage enough to stop some threatened businesses from leaving.
Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham. He has had engagements throughout the United States as well as in 12 nations in Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 898-1871; fax 894-6539; firstname.lastname@example.org; bourqueai.com.