On Lessons from a Stimulated Economy

We can’t get temporary help these days. It’s not that the help isn’t any good, it’s just that they disappear to competitive job offers before we can even get them to interview. It is quite a job market- in Singapore.

I find myself in Singapore this week and the flagging world economy is not in evidence here. The unemployment rate is a mere 1.7%. The malls are full and the lines for taxis are long. The real estate market is robust. Everywhere I turn I see an optimistic outlook. As the saying goes, the national bird is the building crane.

Would that this optimism find its’ way to Massachusetts: to Palmer or Ludlow or Milford. It has not but it could be so. To think otherwise is to abandon hope that the dynamo of the world economy is out of gas. There is no better asset to a community than a true manufacturing base. Manufacturing returns two dollars to the community for each dollar spent. That is four times better than the return from retail. The US economy is still the 800 lb. gorilla on the world stage but it is under attack mostly from within.
Here is the rub. Our institutions are failing us. Our high schools are not providing competent graduates to feed the thirst created by manufacturing. Yes, I said manufacturing. You can not be a successful assembly line worker in this country if you cannot add value in the form of reading blueprints or interpreting work instructions. Those are openers. By the way, the workforces in other countries have those skill sets without remediation. Corporations should not have to provide the education that secondary schools have failed to provide. It is far easier and more cost effective to look towards other places to get these simple tasks done. They look abroad to places like Singapore where nearly every able bodied person who wants to work does so. It is an insurance policy on stable productive output.

Take machining, for example. Our aging manufacturing workforce has no replacements in the pipeline. In our region, everyone is fishing from the same pond when it comes to filling vacancies as the demographic of the workforce ages. Expansion becomes a moot point if you struggle to hire qualified replacements. The vocational schools are not producing skilled graduates because there are simply no entrants. A career in machining can be a lucrative one and one that is creative. You can earn a solid living and support a family on its wages. Over the next 5-10 years, machine shops in Massachusetts will face difficult decisions about remaining in business. Their communities will absorb yet another blow. Death by a thousand cuts.

We can talk about the other factors that the government should consider when tinkering with the economy but what can be more important to building the employment numbers than having qualified people to participate in the growth? Not everyone needs to or should go to college. What they need is an education that is appropriate for their ambition. And that ambition should be nurtured without prejudice through exposure to all sorts of career opportunities as they proceed through school.

The good news is that we have a pipeline already established through the vocational-technical schools. The infrastructure is in place but the pipeline is not fully primed. We can jumpstart that process by opening the programs to adults interested in job enhancement or retraining. We can do that in the evening or we can do that side-by-side with daytime students. There is a frequent outcry from our citizenry to expand the footprints of community colleges into the suburban landscape. This is well and good but let us not forget the vital role that our vo-techs can immediately play in providing assets right now to our fragile manufacturing capability.

So I spend another day in a country that has found a way to provide the proper educational mix to support its industry and national objectives. We in Massachusetts have the tools at hand to mimic this successful model. We should do it now before the erosion of our manufacturing base becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Press on.

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