Opinion

All We Are Saying: Give Manufacturing a Chance

Across Western Mass., we hear about the need for new business opportunities daily, and the pressures facing the region in this regard.

There are a number of ideas on the table to strengthen the economy and the profile of Western Mass. as a player in the Commonwealth and even the nation, ranging from bringing the ‘hidden tech’ sector out of the shadows to entering the life sciences race.

While the region has a long history in manufacturing of all types, it’s a piece of the economic landscape that is often buried under headlines touting new endeavors and tainted by stories of layoffs, company relocations, and plant closings. However, the manufacturing sector in Western Mass. is one in which we’ve noticed a steady undercurrent of progress lately.

True, manufacturing is not exactly enjoying a new heyday; companies have continued to close or relocate to other parts of the globe in recent years.

In the Pioneer Valley, American Pad and Paper Co., Ludlow Textiles, and Holyoke Card Co. have all disappeared. Danaher Tool, which manufactured wrenches in Springfield for more than 100 years, closed its doors in 2006 to relocate operations in Texas and Arkansas, and last year, Springfield Wire phased out its local operations and eliminated 180 jobs in the region.

Berkshire County also said goodbye to some long-standing manufacturing operations in 2007: MeadWestvaco closed one of its two Lee mills, eliminating 70 jobs; Neenah Paper of Alpharetta, Ga., laid off 137 workers after it purchased the former Fox River Paper in Housatonic; and Schweitzer-Mauduit announced that it would begin to close four mills in Lee in 2008, eliminating 165 jobs.

Adding insult to injury, there are still too few skilled workers to fill those positions that are available. Technology marches on, and appropriate training has become a dire necessity.

But perhaps more than any other sector, the manufacturing industry of Western Mass. is one that quietly soldiers on. Just as there have been closings, there have been expansions — AM Lithography, for example, a printing and packaging outfit based in Chicopee, just opened a second location in Holyoke to accommodate its expanding operations.

And Microtest Labs in Agawam, a medical testing and manufacturing facility, is currently seeking $7 million in funding to expand its ‘fill and finish’ division as it concurrently seeks new opportunities in stem cell research.

New educational initiatives are also surfacing to train a new workforce, and innovative arrangements are being made in cities and towns to woo new businesses and keep them here.

For example, five Western Mass. companies are benefiting from a $19.4 million financing program for expansions and renovations announced in November (bonds provided by MassDevelopment are being purchased by several area banks), aimed at strengthening the manufacturing base. Funding has been awarded to Hazen Paper of Holyoke, Argotec of Greenfield, Petricca Industries of Pittsfield, Universal Plastics of Holyoke, and VCA Incorporated of Northampton, and the project is expected to help create 84 new jobs.

And just last month, the Hampden County Regional Employment Board announced the creation of the E. Herbert Burk Fund, established with a $600,000 gift from Burk’s family, to award scholarships and programs to increase interest and job training in the precision machine and tooling industry.

Burk’s story was one of hard work and perseverance paying off, and one that his family, the REB, and others want to see replicated. But more importantly, they want people to understand that it can be replicated.

Industry in Western Mass. is often looked at as the region’s legacy of years gone by. But a point often missed when discussing manufacturing is that it does not stand alone, but rather stands primed and ready to serve as a feeder to countless other promising industries, including biotechnology and life sciences, which received $1 billion worth of attention from Gov. Deval Patrick in 2007.

As we enter a new year, it’s important to remember that manufacturing is not just a part of our past. It’s a key piece of the present, and of the future.

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