Opinion

DANTE RAMOS

Unsexy but tech-forward industries offer hope to middle class

You won’t read many stories proposing Detroit, with its hollowed-out street grid and its much-publicized financial woes, as any kind of model for the 21st-century economy. The future is Facebook, not Ford, right? Yet the companies that design custom software for vehicles and the workers who operate complex robotics provide an underlying source of strength for the Motor City, so much so that Detroit came in fourth in a new Brookings Institution study examining the role that 50 technology-intensive industries play in the economies of the 100 largest metro areas. The employers in question include software publishers, but also drug manufacturers and makers of audio and visual equipment. Together, they represent only 9 percent of the nation’s workforce but produce 17 percent of its GDP.

The blurring of the distinction between blue-collar and white-collar work offers an opportunity for the United States, and for the Boston area. Germany is the model: Despite high labor costs, it built a broad prosperity on industries that lack glamour but generate high productivity. That country has developed extensive training initiatives and apprenticeships. US educators have been far warier of pushing vocational skills aggressively, but doing so has clear benefits.

Which cities are ‘advanced,’ and in what way?

In the Brookings “advanced industries” rankings, Silicon Valley was far and away the leader. Usual tech suspects Seattle and Boston ranked highly, too; Boston, a solid eighth, might have placed higher had researchers factored in more of the health care sector into their calculations. Just as striking, though, is the prominence of unsung metro areas like Palm Bay, Fla., and Wichita. Their hometown industries get little hype — most politicians and reporters know more about iPhone apps than farm machinery — but still grow more sophisticated over time. In Massachusetts, says economist Barry Bluestone of Northeastern University, “There’s a dramatic rejuvenation of a lot of industries that you’d think would be gone by now.” Local workers work on precision mechanical components; plastics firms now make parts for medical devices.

US metro areas ranked by percentage of employment in 50 tech-intensive industries:

SOURCE: “America’s Advanced Industries,” Brookings Institution
Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff

Boston’s changing specialties

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Business leaders and workforce experts say high schools and community colleges should work closely with key local industries to guarantee a steady supply of skilled workers. That’s controversial partly because the list of local specialties changes over time. In the heyday of Wang Laboratories and Digital Equipment Corporation, the share of Boston-area workers employed at computer and peripherals makers was 6.4 times the national average. Since then, local employment in that industry has plunged by three-fourths. Fortunately, good schools made Massachusetts a fertile ground for software publishing and scientific research. Expanding other advanced industries in Boston, argues Joan Fitzgerald of Northeastern, will require not just a skilled workforce but greater investment. (Neither Bluestone nor Fitzgerald was involved in the Brookings study.)

Some metro areas are hotbeds for specific industries. In 1980, the share of Boston-area workers employed by computer makers was 6.4 times the national average. Of the 50 “advanced industries,” these have the highest concentration in Boston:

SOURCE: “America’s Advanced Industries,” Brookings Institution
Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff

Growing industries, diverse educational needs

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Today, the advanced industries now growing in Massachusetts differ significantly in the amount of education they require, and a four-year college degree may not be the only route into them. Many concepts in electrical and mechanical engineering are equally useful to MIT students and to participants in employer- or union-backed training. What’s vital is that students at all levels learn skills that are transferable across fields.

An inevitable objection — especially in the Athens of America — is that there’s more to education than mere job training. But we didn’t always treat the latter as a distraction from the former. Bluestone, who grew up in Detroit, recalls taking wood shop, machine shop, and industrial drawing in high school. Today, some technical skills, such as coding and data analysis, have broad application. Students who learn them can engage more thoughtfully with the world around them, whether they end up in graduate school or behind the controls of high-end machines on a factory floor.

Some growing firms in Boston are in industries that generally require four-year degrees, but others require different forms of training.

SOURCE: “America’s Advanced Industries,” Brookings Institution
Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.