Page 32 - BusinessWest May 13, 2024
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Companies Still Find Ways to Make It Here
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“I say invisible backbone because the manufacturing sector in Western Mass., for the most part, is made up of small- to mid-sized manufacturers that are in the supply chains
of the larger companies.”
“Young people have such a bright future in manufacturing, and without incurring all that college debt.”
Rick Sullivan calls manufacturing the “invisible backbone” of the Western Mass. economy.
That’s not an adjective he would likely have used 40 years ago, not when the region and many of its communities were dominated by large individual manufac- turers or clusters — like GE’s massive transformer complex in Pittsfield, Ameri- can Bosch and other major players in Springfield, and a still-sizable paper-mak- ing sector in Holyoke.
But it works today.
Indeed, while there are still some large manufacturers employing hundreds of people (as opposed to thousands 40, 50, or 100 years ago), this sector is now dominated by smaller players employing maybe a few dozen people each.
And what they’re making has changed as well. While local manufacturing
was dominated by firms making tires, matches, paper, and, before that, arms
for the U.S. military (at the Springfield Armory) and even monkey wrenches and ice skates, today, they’re making parts for stealth fighters, infrared goggles, medical devices, and other sophisticated products. And soon, in Holyoke, one will be making what is billed as ‘green’ concrete.
“I say invisible backbone because the manufacturing sector in Western Mass., for the most part, is made up of small- to mid-sized manufacturers that are in the supply chains of the larger companies,” said Sullivan, president and CEO of
the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council and formerly the long-time mayor of Westfield, one of the region’s manufacturing hubs. “And many of those companies are not situated in Western Mass. or Massachusetts, for that matter; they’re in Connecticut or worldwide.
“And they make important parts for the industry,” he went on. “Back when I was mayor of Westfield, there was $100,000 worth of parts of on every single commer- cial airplane that went through the city of Westfield, and that has only increased.”
These are some of the shifts that have come to this important sector over the past four decades. Others include a seis- mic shift in how such jobs are perceived, one that has contributed to a lingering workforce problem, and one that has
led to a sea change in how hard compa- nies must work to attract and retain tal- ent — and some initiatives that probably couldn’t have been imagined 40 years ago.
Like ‘Barbecue Friday’ at Boulevard Machine in Westfield.
Susan Kasa, president of that company, which makes parts for the military, aero- space, and outer space, among other sectors, said Boulevard feeds its workers breakfast and lunch each day, and, as that name sug- gests, it devotes Fridays to barbecuing.
“People will take
turns being the chef,” she explained. “We’ll do a lot of hot dogs and hamburgers, but sometimes we’ll go all out and do chicken and other meats; our people really enjoy it. You know it’s Friday because you can smell the barbecue.”
This new tradition is one
of many efforts that fall in the
broad category of attracting
and retaining talent, she said,
with others including every-
thing from advertising open
positions in church bulletins
to programs to introduce
young students to manufac-
turing and the opportunities in this field — starting with middle school.
“We’re not your grandfather’s shop,” Kasa said, adding that the machinery is both more complex and cleaner, and one ongoing challenge is educating not only young people but their parents about this new reality.
Mark Borsari agreed.
He’s president of Sanderson MacLeod, a Palmer-based maker of twisted wire brushes. That’s not as sophisticated a product as infrared goggles or parts for artificial knees, but is an example of how traditional manufacturing is still making it in Western Mass., although it’s challeng- ing — when it comes to everything from competition for orders to competition for people.
“It’s a different world, a different envi- ronment than it was 40 years ago and even 20 years ago,” Borsari said. “It gets down to the perception people have and the pride people have in making things and the importance of community; it’s just different.”
Like others we spoke with, he said technology, automation, and lights-out manufacturing, where machines run unat- tended at night, will play ever-larger roles in this sector. But it will always need peo- ple, and finding them will continue to be a challenge, especially as the Baby Boom- ers continue to retire in large numbers.
Tradition of Innovation
As he talked about this important sec- tor, Sullivan stressed what hasn’t changed in 40 years or 250 years, and hopefully won’t change moving forward — that man- ufacturing is a source of what economic- development leaders have long called ‘good jobs at good wages.’
That is, the kind of jobs every region and every community wants and compete tooth and nail to get — and retain.
This region has always had a strong tradition of manufacturing and innovation — Sullivan said those words are essen- tially interchangeable — that goes back to the Springfield Armory and even before that. And it continued with the production of everything from firearms to toys; from automobiles and trolley cars to textiles; from home appliances to buggy whips, products that even gave some area com- munities their nicknames.
Many of these items are no longer made here (although trolley cars are again with the arrival of CRRC). In their place, manufacturers are making parts for jet liners, lunar landers, and the SpaceX rocket. But they also making tim- ing chains for automobiles in the case of U.S. Tsubaki in Holyoke and Chicopee, and fasteners for the roofing industry in the case of OMG in Agawam.
“The manufacturing base in the region
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