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Manufacturers seek workers — but in wrong places

Manufacturers faulted for not tapping vocational schools, other programs

Despite its decline, manufacturing remains a vital part of the state’s economy.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File

Despite its decline, manufacturing remains a vital part of the state’s economy.

Massachusetts manufacturers frequently complain that they can’t find the skilled workers they need. But a new survey shows that most aren’t looking in the right places.

The survey, by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, found that in their hunt for workers, roughly 70 percent or more of the manufacturers had never turned to vocational schools, community colleges, or other programs that train students for jobs in the industry. Rather than a labor shortage, there is a disconnect between manufacturers and the state’s workforce development system, said Michael Goodman, an associate professor of public policy who led the UMass survey.

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“It was clear that the mass majority of these manufacturers were not intersecting with these institutions,” Goodman said. “If you’re a vocational high school, you’ve got to connect with all your different employers.”

The survey of 1,350 firms was conducted in March and April with the aim of quantifying the challenges facing the state’s manufacturing industry. Employment in the sector has fallen by nearly half over the past quarter century from about 480,000 in 1990 to about 250,000 today.

But manufacturing remains a vital component of the state’s economy, employing nearly five times as many people as the biotechnology industry and generating more than $40 billion in economic output.

The industry today is concentrated in so-called advanced manufacturing, a segment of the industry that makes technology and other sophisticated products and requires highly skilled workers. Six out of 10 manufacturers said they planned to hire more employees over the next two years, according to the survey, but one in three said they had a hard time finding qualified workers.

The survey, however, found that few companies collaborated regularly with educational and training organizations. Instead, 69 percent said they never worked with a community college, 73 percent said they never tapped a comprehensive high school, and 76 percent said they never reached out to a four-year university. More than 80 percent said they have never contacted local workforce investment boards, which help support training programs.

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“I don’t think what we’re talking about here is a workforce shortage,” Goodman said. “It’s about connecting these people who have the right skills with these employers.”

Gregory Bialecki, state secretary of Housing and Economic Development, acknowledged that workforce development remains a major issue for manufacturers. The issue will become more acute as the baby boom generation enters retirement. A study by Northeastern University researchers estimated those retirements will open up about 100,000 positions over the next decade.

“Even if schools are routinely placing students at hundreds of firms,” he said, “that’s only a fraction.”

Bialecki said his office has spent millions of dollars in the last few years creating and improving vocational programs, while also strengthening partnerships with employers to boost workers’ chances of finding jobs.

For instance, the state provided a $2 million equipment grant in May to help establish an advanced manufacturing training center at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester. In April, the state gave a $1.2 million equipment grant to start an advanced manufacturing academy at the Greater Lawrence Vocational Technical High School and Northern Essex Community College.

“Our goal in the big picture is essentially to reverse the findings of the survey,” Bialecki said. “We would love for Massachusetts to be a state where our manufacturing employers said, you know, it’s so easy to find skilled workers here that it’s a great place to do business.”

Henry Renski, director of the UMass Center for Economic Development, said one of the greatest challenges is changing the perception of manufacturing as a declining industry. It took a big hit in the early years of the last decade when computer and electronics manufacturers began to outsource their work to cheaper locales, and was hit hard again by the last recession.

As a result, many school districts have deemphasized vocational training in favor of college prep programs. “After going through decades of just laying people off,” Renski said, “people really don’t think of manufacturing as much of a vocation anymore.”

Jack Healy, director of operations at the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a group that advises small and medium manufacturers, agreed. He said the vocational training programs in the state have been “neglected” for more than a decade, which has created particular problems for small manufacturers that don’t have the money to train workers by themselves.

The survey showed that 90 percent of manufacturing firms were willing to train new employees with basic skills, but only 79 percent said they have the resources to do so.

But, Healy said, recent efforts by state and local governments to boost vocational training hold the promise of companies and the industry.

“You can do this, you can make a correction,” Healy said. “You can get people in the workforce.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at erin.ailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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