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Manufacturing sector in Mass. promising for workers, recent study finds

Students looking to work within Massachusetts as manufacture workers are currently at an advantage, as the manufacturing sector has experienced significant growth, according to a University of Massachusetts press release.

The state’s manufacturing firms advertised about 73,000 job openings in 2011, second only to the state’s healthcare-related job openings, according to the press release from the Donahue Institute and Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness. The most sought-after positions include customer service representatives, as well as computer and information-technology employees.

“Increasingly, manufacturing jobs are requiring higher levels of skills and education, with firms needing workers with analytic and technical management skills, on the shop floor as well as in the executive offices,” said Kenneth Poole, CEO of the CREC, in the release.

Forty-five percent of the job openings required some type of college experience or post-secondary degree. Jobs requiring backgrounds in engineering, computing or business management have replaced many traditional assembly-line jobs.

As a result of these heightened employment standards, Massachusetts manufacturing firms have faced difficulties finding ideal candidates to fill their open positions, economic experts said.

Filling these available positions is a complicated issue, in part because of higher standards by employers, said Andre Mayer, a senior vice president of communications and research at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

“But there are significant skills issues as well,” he said. “In an uncertain economy, there is a tendency not to hire and they want people who can be productive from day one.”

In some cases, Mayer said, there are qualified candidates who have been previously employed in positions similar to those available, but if they have been unemployed for more than a year, firms may feel as though “[those workers] have lost their edge” and are no longer capable of working at a high level.

In addition to changes in employment policies, changes in the manufacturing sector have contributed to the difficulties in filling new job openings, said Jack Healy, center director of the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, via email.

“There has been a shift from low-value added manufacturing, which has gone offshore,” Healy said, “to high-value added manufacturing, also called advanced manufacturing.”

The jobs available in advanced manufacturing, Healy said, require a far greater level of education and training than the “low-value added” manufacturing positions that used to be more prevalent in Massachusetts.

The employment shift in the manufacturing sector from low-skill, low-educated workers to high-skill, well-educated workers may also be a result of technology investments made by manufacturing firms in recent years, said Professor Robert Margo, who teaches economics at Boston University.

“Technological change has exhibited ‘capital-skill’ complementarity, meaning that manufacturing is both capital intensive and, increasingly, skill intensive,” he said.

One of the reasons prospective manufacturing workers have not been able to meet the higher standards of hiring firms, he said, is because schools and students have not had the time to adjust to the needs of the industry.

“Massachusetts schools haven’t caught up just yet,” he said.

Margo said this is probably both a problem at the high-school and community-college level. High school students in Massachusetts who are planning on attending college, he said, are not thinking about these jobs.

To resolve the employment difficulties faced by firms unable to find qualified workers, he said, firms should look to partner up with schools.

“Public-private partnerships where firms team up with local community colleges so that their labor needs are clearly expressed in the curriculum,” Margo said, “is arguably one way for such firms to enhance the number of qualified applicants.”

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