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Education Anywhere

Marjorie Bessette says online nursing programs are opening doors to higher degrees at a time when the industry is demanding them.

Marjorie Bessette says online nursing programs are opening doors to higher degrees at a time when the industry is demanding them.

Back in 2010, the Institute of Medicine put out a call for 80% of all registered nurses to have a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) by 2020. National nurse organizations picked up the goal as well — 85% is the current goal — while hospitals with ‘magnet’ status, such as Baystate Medical Center, maintain even stricter staffing goals.

One problem, though: RNs work full-time jobs, and many go home to a full slate of family and parenting obligations. And that leaves little opportunity to go back to school to take classes toward a BSN.

Enter the online model.

“The reason for the increase in online RN-to-BSN programs is the need to increase the number of BSN-prepared nurses in the workplace,” said Marjorie Bessette, academic director of Health and Nursing at Bay Path University.

“There’s a national initiative to have 85% of RNs be minimally at the BSN level by 2020, which is right around the corner,” she went on. “Nurses have full-time jobs and full-time lives. With area hospitals and work sites demanding BSNs, we’re trying to help that workforce shortage by creating accelerated programs online that nurses can take on their own schedule. They don’t have to be in class at a certain time.”

Bay Path, through its American Women’s College, launched its online RN-to-BSN program in 2015 and graduated its first class in 2017. It also offers online tracks toward master of science in nursing (MSN) and doctor of nursing practice degrees.

“Many students come in with an RN already, and they’re usually able to transfer most of their associate-degree credits toward a bachelor’s degree,” Bessette noted.

American International College (AIC) offers online programs for an RN-to-BSN degree, as well as its MSN track, which offers three concentrations: nurse educator, nurse administrator, and family nurse practitioner.

“Ultimately, both RNs and graduate-program students are already working nurses, and it can be challenging to go back to school while working on their chosen career, but the online format gives them the opportunity to do that,” said Ellen Furman, interim director for Graduate Nursing and assistant professor of Nursing at AIC.

“The reason for the increase in online RN-to-BSN programs is the need to increase the number of BSN-prepared nurses in the workplace.”

“They have to be online weekly, but when, exactly, to be online is up to them,” she went on. “So, a nurse might be working nights, or might be on days, and this gives them the flexibility to arrange their schedule to get their work done at a time that’s convenient for them.”

And convenience is paramount for young medical professionals who don’t need much more added stress on their plates.

“Many have families, and trying to balance that can be really difficult,” Furman said. “With the online forum, they can work when they want to work, or when they have time to work, rather than being at a specific place at a specific time on a weekly basis.”

And that, industry leaders believe, will lead to many more nurses seeking the higher degrees so in demand.

“There is currently an RN shortage, which seems to be cyclical. Some years, graduates are looking for jobs, and some years, there are multiple jobs per graduate,” Furman said. “Right now, there seems to be a real shortage. If you look at any healthcare institution in the region, they’re all looking to recruit nurses, and at higher levels of education, especially if they’re a magnet institution like Baystate, which is looking to increase their number of nurses with higher degrees.”

Setting the Pace

Cindy Dakin, professor and director of Graduate Nursing Studies at Elms College School of Nursing, said Elms offers all three tracks of its MSN program — one in nursing education, one in nursing and health services management, and the third in school nursing — online.

“You don’t have to be sitting in front of the computer at a specific time. Classes are not live. You can access the materials through the system,” she noted. “The faculty will load the syllabus and load all the assignments for the entire semester, so students know when each deadline is. That allows them to plan ahead if they want to get ahead. If somebody moves quicker, or if a vacation is coming up, you can get it done ahead of time if you want to. It allows flexibility when you can access the whole course and know what the requirements and deadlines are.”

Elms launched its first MSN program — a totally in-person classroom model — in 2008, then moved to a hybrid format, recogizing that nurses have busy lives, and the requirements of the job — with often-unexpected overtime shifts arising — made it difficult to come to class at times.

School nurses in particular were having a tough time making it to class for 3 or 3:30 p.m., Dakin noted. “They always had to be late, and we always made allowances for them, but they were still missing something in the first half-hour of class.”

The best option, department leaders decided, was a totally online program.

“It has helped to broaden our market,” she said. “Normally, students — even in hybrid programs — have lived within close proximity to Elms, and come on campus for classes. Being online, I have students from the North Shore, on Nantucket, and these people definitely would not have enrolled in our program if we still required face-to-face classes. Our base is much wider now.”

Bessette added that students face the same academic rigors as they would in a physical classroom, but they can complete the program on an accelerated basis to meet the requirements.

“It’s more convenient because, whatever shift you’re working as a nurse, you’re able to fit that in. When I went back for my bachelor’s degree, I did it the traditional way; we didn’t have an online program at the time. I went in the evening after work, one course, three nights a week, for 15 weeks. But I did my master’s online, and that made a huge difference.”

Most online nursing courses do require a clinical component, depending on the track. Also, “we have a few on-campus days, but those are minimal,” Furman said. “In the RN-to-BSN program, there’s no on-campus requirement.”

Breaking Through

Dakin was quick to note that, if students need to talk to faculty, the professor will schedule a session, or perhaps arrange to meet several students at once through a videoconferencing session.

In fact, technology has made the online model feel less isolating in recent years, she added. “When they load the course information, they may use PowerPoint, or they might tape themselves lecturing. Most of us, at the very least, do voiceovers, which lends a more personal aspect to it.

“Some students aren’t sure if they’ll like it,” she added. “They like the extra time, not having to travel to a specific place. But they’re also afraid of losing contact. But that doesn’t happen, and at the same time, it really broadens our base to recruit students.”

Furman agreed.

“There will be people who say, ‘I don’t think I can learn online.’ I’ve been that student who has been both online and in the classroom, and I’ll say that online education is not like it used to be,” she told BusinessWest. “Today, with technology as it is, there are so many more options to deliver content and more effectively teach students in that online room. I believe if a student says they can’t learn online, they just haven’t been engaged in the right program in the right way.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Closing the Gap

Amanda Gould

Amanda Gould says the grant awarded to Bay Path University will fund a collaborative effort to help improve the digital fluency of the workforce.

When people talk about an ‘IT gap,’ Amanda Gould says, the appropriate response might be, ‘which one?’

Indeed, there’s the gap that seems to getting most of the attention these days, the one that involves the huge gender disparity in the IT workforce, with the vast majority of those well-paying jobs going to men, said Gould, chief administrative officer for the American Women’s College at Bay Path University, one of the institutions working to do something about this through its expanding Cybersecurity and IT degree programs.

But there’s another gap, she said, and this one involves the workforce and its digital fluency — or lack thereof. In short, too many people lack the necessary skills to thrive in the modern workplace, especially in IT-related roles, and the need to devise solutions for changing this equation is becoming critical.

For this reason, the nonprofit Strada Education Network committed $8 million to what it calls the ‘innovative solutions in education-to-employment’ competition, a name that speaks volumes about its mission.

And Bay Path emerged as one of the winners in this competition, garnering $1.58 million for a three-year project appropriately called “Closing the Gaps: Building Pathways for Women in a Technology-driven Workforce” (note ‘gaps’ in the plural).

This will be a collaborative effort, said Gould, adding that work is already underway with a number of partners, including the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, Pas the Torch for Women, Springfield Technical Community College, the UMass Donohue Institute, and others.

“Thinking about IT being in and of itself a discipline is, in my view, becoming obsolete.”

This work, said Gould, “involves extensive employer research and engagement, and building capacity of the American Women’s College to scale enrollment of adult women and prepare them with core cybersecurity and information-technology competencies that meet the needs of employers, support them as they move to degree completion, and assist them to successfully transition to careers in cybersecurity and IT-related employment.”

The key word in that sentence is ‘core,’ she said, because such competencies are now needed to succeed in jobs across virtually all sectors, not just IT and cybersecurity, and, as noted, many individuals simply don’t have them, and thus doors to some opportunities remain closed.

Opening them is the purpose of the of the Strada Education Network program, said Gould, adding that it will address a large problem that is obvious, yet often overlooked.

“What we’re not doing well overall when we think about our workforce is recognizing that technology is becoming increasingly more important in any role in any industry,” she explained. “Thinking about IT being in and of itself a discipline is, in my view, becoming obsolete; technology is a part of any organization running, and we should be less focused on training people to live in a silo or column that prepares them to fulfill very specific functions, and instead be training our women across all our majors to be thoughtful about how technology may impact their future roles in the workforce and how to be more engaged with ways technology helps them perform the aspirations they have in a variety of careers.”

Patricia Crosby, executive director of the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board, agreed. She said her agency and other workforce-related partners will play a key role in this initiative — specifically bringing business leaders and those in the education sector together in the same room to discuss how curriculum can and should be structured to vastly improve the odds of student success and make what has been a fairly closed field much more open.

“The IT field has not been an open field to newcomers, diverse workers, and female workers,” said Crosby. “The Bay Path program is attempting to remedy some of that and make the pathways clearer.”

Overall, the nearly $1.6 million grant will be put toward a variety of uses, said Gould, who listed everything from career coaching to scholarships; from curriculum development to putting students in situations where they’re getting hands-on training in their chosen field. And all of them are pieces to the puzzle when comes to not only entering the workforce, but succeeding in a career.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the ‘closing the gaps’ initiative and why it is so critical when it comes to today’s workforce.

Keys to Success

Smashing Bay Path’s program down to a few key swing thoughts, Gould said it basically involves determining which IT skills are most needed in the workplace, which ones are missing in a large number of applicants and employees, and how to effectively provide those skills.

And while it’s easy to state the problem and this three-year project’s goals, devising solutions won’t be quite so easy because the problems are systemic and fairly deep-rooted.

Patricia Crosby

Patricia Crosby says the grant awarded to Bay Path University will help create clearer, better pathways into an IT field that historically has not been open to women, newcomers, and diverse workers.

“As higher-education institutions,” Gould explained, “we haven’t kept up with our education and our curriculum to make sure that, as students are leaving with a psychology degree or a communications degree or nursing degree, we are building in exposure to these tool sets and these skills. By being more theoretical in our education, we’ve almost created the gaps.

“I really think we’re at a moment in time when we need to be more thoughtful about integrating technology for all students,” she went on, adding that, if those in higher ed created the gaps, it’s now incumbent upon them to close them.

Elaborating, she noted that cybersecurity, while still a specific discipline and course of study, is also part of myriad job descriptions today — for those helping with social-media campaigns to those handling customer records — and thus cyber should be part of occupational training.

This is a relatively new mindset, she acknowledged, one that involves a close partnership between the business community and those in higher education.

To put it in perspective, she cited some research conducted by Strada and Gallup regarding the relevancy of educational programs.

“When they were interviewing higher-ed administrators about how prepared they thought their students were for the workforce, a majority of them said ‘they’re very prepared,’” she noted. “But when they interviewed employers, a very small percentage of them thought the students were truly prepared to enter the workforce. There’s an enormous disconnect.”

A commitment to closing it explains why the Strada network is giving $8 million to seven winners of its competition, and also explains why partners like the EDC and the MassHire facilities will play such a critical role in this endeavor.

They will help connect those with the project to industry groups and specific companies with the goal of not only determining the skill sets they need in their employees, but placing students in situations where they gain valuable hands-on experience.

These experiences can include job shadowing, interviewing someone in a particular role, project-based coursework, or actual internships, said Gould.

“There are a variety of ways we can get our students connected with employers,” she said, adding that such connections are vital to understanding the field, comprehending the role IT plays in it, and, ultimately, gaining employment within that sector.

“In an ideal scenario, our students are off and working,” she went on. “It would be better if they were working in a field they see as their career rather than in a job where they’re working to offset expenses. If there are ways to get students into the workplace before graduation, we want to nurture those entry points.”

Crosby agreed.

“In an ideal scenario, our students are off and working. It would be better if they were working in a field they see as their career rather than in a job where they’re working to offset expenses.”

“In this field [IT], more than any other, as much as any credentials or degrees, employers are looking for experience,” she said. “There’s a gap between the people who are learning it and the people who are getting the jobs because the people who get the jobs already have experience. There’s a bridge that has to be crossed between any education and training program and the workplace.

Sound Bytes

As she talked about the Bay Path program and how to measure its success, Gould said there will be a number of ways to do that.

These include everything from the level of dialogue between the business community and those in education — something that needs to be improved — to the actual placement rates of graduates in not only the IT and cyber fields, but others as well.

In short, the mission is to close the gaps, as in the plural. There are several of them, and they are large, but through a broad collaborative effort, those involved in this initiative believe they can begin to close those gaps and connect individuals to not only jobs but careers.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing

Layer by Layer

ADDFab Director Dave Follette with samples of 3D-printed objects.

ADDFab Director Dave Follette with samples of 3D-printed objects.

The Advanced Digital Design & Fabrication Lab, or ADDFab for short — one of 31 ‘core facilities’ in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst — is creating something significant in the manufacturing world, and not just the products it forms from metal and polymer powders. No, it’s also building connections between young talent and companies that will increasingly need it as 3D printing becomes more mainstream. And it does so with a focus — no, an insistence — on hands-on learning.

It’s hard to learn about 3D printing, Dave Follette said, if you don’t have access to a 3D printer.

ADDFab has five. And it likes to share them. In fact, that’s its mission.

“We have all these high-end machines, and it’s hard to get access to these in the real world,” said Follette, director of ADDFab, which stands for Advanced Digital Design & Fabrication Lab, one of 31 ‘core facilities’ in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst. “Who’s going to let you touch their quarter-million-dollar machine and learn the ins and outs of it — how do you set it up? What happens if it fails? What do I do?”

ADDFab, like the other core facilities, seeks to eliminate skills gaps between students and the work world with hands-on opportunities to use some truly cutting-edge and, yes, expensive equipment.

“Here, the student interns aren’t just going on the computer and doing some research. They come to the lab, suit up, play with some parts, take them out of the printer, clean it — they get real experience actually touching the machines.”

ADDFab takes a similar tack with local businesses seeking to learn more about 3D printing, Follette added.

“The workshops we do are less sitting in a classroom talking about 3D printing and more, ‘let’s do some 3D printing.’”

“The workshops we do are less sitting in a classroom talking about 3D printing and more, ‘let’s do some 3D printing.’ You actually come in, design a part on the software, print the part, and go home with something you created. You see the process. That’s what’s valuable about being on site. You can go on the Internet and watch YouTube videos, but something about doing it yourself gives you an understanding of how it works and why it works, and what works and what doesn’t. That’s what we’re trying to teach.”

Sundar Krishnamurty, ADDFab’s co-director, explained that the facility has three distinct but interwoven goals.

“We’re a research university, so we want our researchers to develop new knowledge, and we hope this will be a medium for that,” he told BusinessWest. “Second, there’s a lot of experiential learning for our students. Third, we have good engagement with our industries, especially small and medium-sized companies in the area.”

The equipment itself is impressive — two metal printers and three polymer printers, each using different raw materials and different technologies to produce an endless array of products. The facility supports UMass itself in several ways, as students and faculty can be trained to use the equipment to conduct their own research on additive manufacturing, while ADDFab also provides printing services and engineering support for faculty in all academic departments.

But it’s the outreach to industry that may be most intriguing element, not just through those aforementioned workshops, which are intended to broaden understanding of how 3D printing will affect the manufacturing industry and to provide hands-on skills, but through a state-funded voucher program that gives businesses with fewer than 50 employees a 50% subsidy to access the core facilities, and 75% to businesses with fewer than 10.

“You can do $100,000 of work for $25,000,” Follette said. “For a new technology, it makes it easy to get your feet wet and test it out. A lot of companies we’re working with haven’t used 3D printing before and are figuring out how it fits into their business.”

Krishnamurty agreed. “We really want to be partnering with local industries in helping us identify the gaps and where we can provide leadership, expertise, and resources to help them achieve their goals.”

What happens when students are well-trained on cutting-edge 3D-printing technology, and when area manufacturers learn more about its potential, is clear, they both noted: Positive workforce development that helps businesses grow while keeping talent in Western Mass.

Student Stories

Jeremy Hall, now a senior at UMass, has been interning at ADDFab, and said the opportunities are positive on a number of levels, including setting students up for interesting careers in a fast-growing, but still largely undertapped, field.

“It’s an up-and-coming field, and a lot of jobs are opening up in it because a lot of companies see the benefit of it,” Hall told BusinessWest. “Look at rapid prototyping — instead of making a mistake and spending five figures on a mold only to discover that part’s not usable, you can do several iterations and save a lot of money doing so.”

Jack Ford (left) and Jeremy Hall are two of the current student interns at ADDFab.

Jack Ford (left) and Jeremy Hall are two of the current student interns at ADDFab.

He thinks he’s putting himself in good position for the workforce by learning the various processes by actually doing them. His initial career interests were in research and design and rapid prototyping, but the more he’s delved into additive manufacturing, the more interested he has become in material properties, and exploring what other raw materials can used to create stronger products. “The application is here; it’s just, how much can you improve it from here?”

“Look at rapid prototyping — instead of making a mistake and spending five figures on a mold only to discover that part’s not usable, you can do several iterations and save a lot of money doing so.”

Another intern, Jack Ford, is a sophomore whose interest in 3D printing began when he used similar — but not nearly as advanced — technology to create a tool in a high-school drafting class.

“It was interesting to see that whole process, and it grew my interest in the manufacturing aspects of it,” he noted. “And look at how 3D printing has grown over the years — it’s crazy to see where it is now. The laser technology is incredible, how it’s so precise and manages to get such a fine level of detail despite seeming like such a strange process. We put the powder down, bam, there’s a layer. It blows my mind.”

There’s an energy-absorbing lattice piece on a table at ADDFab inscribed with the name of its creator, Adam Rice, who recently became one of the facility’s success stories, and an example of how it seeks to connect talent with need.

“In my 10 weeks here, I’ve worked one-on-one with companies, toured facilities, and even given a presentation at FLIR Systems,” Rice explained last year, in an interview snippet used in an ADDFab promotional brochure. “It’s been building my confidence. I’ve had no real engineering experience before this, and this is my first time really applying it and seeing how people do this as a career.”

After graduating in December, he now has a career of his own, at Lytron, a designer and manufacturer of thermal-management and liquid-cooling products based in Woburn.

“They use a metal printer exactly the same as ours and needed someone with additive-manufacturing experience to help them run their printer,” Follette said. “The VP of Engineering contacted me and asked, ‘do you have any students who know additive?’ I said, ‘yes.’ He came by and met the students, and we had a good fit.”

The brochure Rice appears in promotes the UMass Summer Undergraduate Core Internship Program, which allows students from the STEM fields to access hands-on training and experience in the core facilities, including ADDFab, over the summer.

“We’ve been doing learning by trying,” he said. “It’s been really cool to get to do more hands-on engineering.”

And even cooler to spin it into a well-paying job.

Into the Future

Meanwhile, area companies — including, of late, Peerless Precision, Volo Aero, FTL Labs, Cofab Design, and MultiSensor Scientific — continue to take advantage of ADDFab’s resources, often through the voucher program, either to make 3D products or learn more about how to incorporate the technology. Responding to a commonly raised concern, Krishnamurty stressed that all intellectual property stays with the companies.

Sundar Krishnamurty says ADDFab wants to partner with local industries

Sundar Krishnamurty says ADDFab wants to partner with local industries to identify and fill workforce and training gaps.

“A lot of times, people see UMass and think, ‘how do I work with them? They’re big, and I’m not,’ Follette said. “But the message we want to put out is that we’re doing 3D printing, and we’re here to help industries. There are many ways to get involved, whether you just have an idea on a napkin or you have computer files and want to print them on our advanced printer.”

Indeed, he noted, ADDFab’s large-scale 3D printers are performing industrial-grade production of “real parts you can use for real things. A lot of engineering companies we’re working with are doing prototyping of parts, design iterations — they want to print something and feel it, then make another change and another change, and it’s great they can turn this around fast and get a part that’s usable also at a great price.”

Using ADDFab is ideal for small runs, he added. “If you need five today, that’s fine. If you need 20 tomorrow, fine. If you need five more the next day, that’s fine, too.”

“A lot of times, people see UMass and think, ‘how do I work with them? They’re big, and I’m not. But the message we want to put out is that we’re doing 3D printing, and we’re here to help industries.”

And if the facility can perform such services while training the next generation of engineers and boosting workforce development for the region’s manufacturing sector, Krishnamurty said, well, that’s a clear win-win-win.

“These are truly one-of-a-kind facilities,” he said, speaking not just of ADDFab, but all the core facilities at UMass Amherst. “I think the future is endless.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Exciting STUFF

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College, proudly displays the cribbage board given to him by students at Pathfinder Regional Technical High School in Palmer

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College, says he doesn’t play the card game cribbage.

But that doesn’t mean the cribbage board given to him recently gathers dust sitting in a drawer or closet unused. In fact, it now occupies a prominent place on a desk already crowded with items that speak to his personal life and career in higher education.

That’s because the elaborate board was crafted by students at Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School in Palmer. It’s fashioned from metal — Cook isn’t sure exactly what the material is, although he suspects it’s aluminum — and it’s truly a one-off, complete with his name and title printed on it.

As noted, Cook’s never used the gift for its intended purpose, but he’s found an even higher calling for it.

“I take this around, and I tell people that, if they can create one of these at one of those labs like the one at Pathfinder, there’s a $50,000-a-year job waiting for you,” he said as he started to explain, making it clear that his cribbage board has become yet another strategic initiative in a multi-faceted effort to educate people about careers in manufacturing and inspire them to get on the path needed to acquire one.

Other steps include everything from taking young people on tours of area plants — and their parking lots (more on that later) — to working with the parents of those people to convince them that today’s manufacturing jobs are certainly not like those of a generation, or two, or three, ago.

“I take this around, and I tell people that, if they can create one of these at one of those labs like the one at Pathfinder, there’s a $50,000-a-year job waiting for you.”

And there’s good reason for all the time and hard work put toward this cause. It’s all spelled out in the latest Workforce Development and Technology Report prepared as part of the Precision Manufacturing Regional Alliance Project, or PMRAP for short.

Indeed, the numbers on pages 7 and 8 practically jump off the page. The chart titled ‘Workforce Indicators’ reveals that the 41 companies surveyed for this report project that, between new production hires and replacement of retiring employees, they’ll need 512 new workers this year. Extrapolate those figures out over the entire precision-manufacturing sector, and the need is 1,400 to 1,500, said Dave Cruise, president and CEO of the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, formerly the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County. Meanwhile, the number of people graduating annually from programs at the region’s vocational high schools and STCC is closer to 300, he said, noting quickly, and with great emphasis, that not all of those graduates, especially at the high-school level, will go right into the workforce.

Those numbers translate into a huge gap and a formidable challenge for this region and its precision-manufacturing industry, said Cruise, Cook, and others we spoke with, adding that additional capacity, and a lot of it, in the form of trained machinists, must somehow be created to keep these plants humming. But before finding the capacity (the expensive manufacturing programs) required to train would-be machinists, the region must create demand for those programs. Right now, there certainly isn’t enough, hence strategic initiatives involving everything from plant tours to Cook’s traveling cribbage board.

BusinessWest has now become an active player in this initiative with an aptly named special publication called Cool STUFF Made in Western Mass. It’s called that to not only confirm that there are a lot of intriguing products made in this region — from parts for the latest fighter jets to industry-leading hand dryers to specialty papers — but to grab the attention of area young people; Cool STUFF will be distributed at middle schools and high schools with tech programs, regional workforce development offices, state college career counseling offices, non-manufacturing employers, top manufacturing firms, BusinessWest subscribers, guidance counselors, community colleges, and employment offices.

Sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and MassDevelopment, Cool STUFF will include a number of profiles of area companies. These profiles will list the products made, the customers served, and the markets these companies supply. But the most important details are the job opportunities, the benefits paid, and the thoughts of those working for these companies.

As BusinessWest continues work on Cool STUFF, to be distributed later this fall (companies interested in purchasing profiles can still do so), it will use this edition of the magazine to set the table, if you will, by detailing the size and scope of the challenge facing this region when it comes to its manufacturing sector, and also highlighting many of the initiatives to address it.

Making Some Progress

Kristen Carlson is working on the front lines of the manufacturing sector’s workforce challenge — in a number of capacities, first as president of the local NTMA chapter, which has about 60 members, but also as owner and president of Peerless Precision in Westfield, a maker of parts for the aerospace and defense industries.

Kristin Carlson, owner of president of Peerless Precision

Kristin Carlson, owner of president of Peerless Precision, says area precision shops are very busy; the only thing holding them back is finding enough good help.

She told BusinessWest that business is booming for Peerless and most other precision manufacturers in this region, and it’s likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future — a fact lost on many not familiar with the high quality of work carried out at area shops and this region’s reputation across the country and around the world as a precision hub.

“In the precision-machining side of the manufacturing sector, companies are not leaving this area,” she explained while debunking one myth about this industry. “There is a skilled workforce here that other states simply cannot compete with. So while it might cost a company less to do business in Tennessee or South Carolina, for example, they’re not going to see the same skill that we need in order to produce the parts our customers need.

“Right now, every industry is booming — aerospace, defense, oil and gas, even the commercial sectors,” she went on. “A lot of us are seeing really large growth percentages over the past 12 months; the only thing that’s holding us back is having the workforce to fill the jobs that we have.”

Peerless has seen 30% growth over the past year, and added six new people over the first six months, she continued, adding that, several years ago, the pace would have been closer to one new person a year.

“I could double in size if I had the workers,” she told BusinessWest, adding that there are many in this sector who could likely say the same thing.

The challenge of inspiring more individuals to become interested in manufacturing is not exactly a recent phenomenon in this region; it’s been ongoing for some time. However, the problem has become more acute as shops continue to add work and also as the Baby Boom generation moves into retirement.

The problem becomes one of supply and demand. There is considerable demand, but simply not enough supply. In most matters involving this equation, supply usually catches up with demand, but this situation is different in many respects.

Indeed, there are many impediments to creating supply, starting with perceptions (or misperceptions, as the case may be) about this sector and lingering fears that jobs that might be there today won’t be there tomorrow. These sentiments are fueled by memories of those with the Boomer generation, who saw large employers such as the Springfield Armory, American Bosch, Uniroyal, Diamond Match, Digital Equipment Corp., Westinghouse, and others disappear from the landscape.

Dave Cruise

Dave Cruise says surveys of area precision manufacturers reveal a huge gap between expected need for workers and the region’s ability to supply them.

Meanwhile, another challenge is creating capacity. Manufacturing programs are expensive, said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council (EDC) of Western Mass., adding that it’s also difficult to find faculty for such facilities because potential educators can make more money working in the field than they can in the classroom.

Regarding those perceptions, the obvious goal is to change the discussion, or the narrative, surrounding manufacturing, said Sullivan, by driving home the relative security of most jobs today and the fact that “these are not your grandfather’s manufacturing jobs.”

“Manufacturing today … is not, for the most part, standing at a machine doing some kind of manual labor,” he told BusinessWest. “The high-end precision manufacturers today are very technology-driven; there’s lot of computer science, lots of IT. It’s a clean environment, and the jobs in manufacturing, especially precision manufacturing, are very-good-paying jobs, and you can have a very good middle or upper-middle lifestyle, particularly in Western Massachusetts.”

Cook, whose school has several manufacturing programs and is the region’s clear leader in supplying workers for the industry, said that, despite the costs and challenges, additional capacity can and will be created — if (and this is a big if) demand for such programs grows and becomes steady.

That’s why Carlson and others say that manufacturers must sell this sector and its employment opportunities to not only the region’s young people, but also their parents.

“And their parents are often the harder sell,” said Carlson. “If I have a class of 20 kids come in and three or four or five of them show a real interest in manufacturing, I consider that a good day. But then, those kids go home, and selling it to their parents is the difficult part, because many of them still believe this is your grandfather’s machine shop — it’s a dark, dingy place, and only people who can’t go to college do that work, which is not the case.”

Meanwhile, young people are not the only targets. Indeed, other constituencies include those who are unemployed and underemployed, those looking for new careers, and the region’s large and still-growing African-American and Latino populations.

Across all those subgroups, women have become a focal point, in part because they — and, again, their parents — have not looked upon manufacturing as a viable career option when, in fact, it is just that.

“We know there are really well-paying jobs out there, but there’s a lot of work to be done to invite new individuals into this career path,” said Cook. “And I talk about two groups in particular — women and students of color — and there’s work to be done there. We have to engage families, and at much younger ages.”

Still Some Work to Do

It’s called the Twisters Café.

That’s the name given to a ’50s-style diner at Sanderson MacLeod in Palmer, a maker of twisted wire brushes for the cosmetic, healthcare, handgun, and other markets.

It was created a year or so ago, not long after the company also added an appropriately named ‘appreciation garden,’ an outdoor break area complete with picnic tables, chairs, umbrellas, and more.

The additions are part of ongoing efforts to make the workplace more, well, livable and attractive to employees and potential employees.

“They’re little things, but they make this a better environment,” said Mark Borsari, the company’s president. “People are here more than they’re at home, and we hope these steps make this a more enjoyable place to be.”

Those sentiments are yet another indication of how manufacturing has changed in recent years. And making people aware of not just perks like the Twisters Café, but also, and more importantly, the jobs and careers available in manufacturing today, is the broad, multi-faceted mission of a growing group of individuals, agencies, and companies.

This constituency includes the EDC, the various MassHire agencies, the vocational high schools and STCC, the NTMA, and individual manufacturers.

Shop owners will go into the schools themselves to talk about what they do and how, said Sullivan, and the shops will host tours of students, taking them onto the floor, and later into the parking lot.

“That’s a big part of these tours,” he said. “They show the students what they can do, what they can have, with the money they can earn from one of these jobs.”

And such initiatives are starting to generate results on some levels, said Sullivan, noting that many of the vocational schools now have waiting lists, especially for their manufacturing programs — something that didn’t exist a decade ago or even five years ago, when such schools were largely viewed as the best option for students not suited for a typical college-bound curriculum.

But those numbers on pages 7 and 8 of the PMRAP report show there is still a huge gap between demand and the current supply, and therefore there is still considerable work to be done, said Cruise, noting that the goal moving forward is to reach more people overall, more young people, and young people at an earlier age.

Cook agreed, and to get his point across, he brought out another item he’s collected — a fidget spinner made by a young student during a summer STEM program staged at the STCC campus.

“We have to do more of that,” he explained. “We have to do more work with younger students; we have to engage their families over the summer, and we have to let the young people get their hands on the equipment and build things like this. And we have to do things like this at scale — we have to start inviting far larger groups of students to our campus to see these programs.”

Cook does a lot of promotional work for the manufacturing sector — and STCC’s programs — himself, and his cribbage board is very often part of the presentation.

“I bring it to meetings every once in a while,” he explained. “It’s that teacher in me that still likes to use something physical for people to see, to touch, and to hold. They can realize that there’s still a very important place for this in our economy, and there’s nothing better than to put this into people’s hands and make them realize that that’s something significant about the ability to generate something like this.”

Cool STUFF will hopefully act like that cribbage board in that young people can see the products many area companies are making, and, in the snapshot profiles of these company’s employees, they can maybe see themselves in a few years.

“Manufacturing has a rich history in this region, but too many people think ‘history’ means ‘in the past,’” said BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti. “There’s still history being written in this sector, and the future looks exceedingly bright. Cool STUFF will hopefully drive this point home and encourage young people to include manufacturing in their list of career options.”

Parts of the Whole

Carlson was talking about the salaries and benefits offered by her company — most workers are paid $1,000 a week or more — when she paused for a moment.

“When you add up wages, overtime, and everything else, there are a few guys here making more money than I do,” she said, adding that this is not an exaggeration, but it is a fact lost on many young people, their parents, and other constituencies.

Bringing such facts, and numbers, to life is an ongoing priority for the region, and Cool STUFF will become part of the answer moving forward, as will John Cook’s cribbage board, plant parking-lot tours, and much more.

The stakes are high, but so is the number of opportunities — for potential job holders, the companies that will employ them, and the region as a whole.

People need to be made aware of these opportunities, said all those we spoke with, and, more importantly, inspired to reach for them.

(For more information on Cool STUFF Made in Western Mass., on how to have your company profiled, for advertising opportunities, and to receive copies, call (413) 781-8600.)

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]