To the editor of THE EAGLE:
The excellent and timely March 7 article "Training the path to better jobs" highlighted the need for preparation of a skilled labor force. This is a segment of the American economy overlooked by both Washington and the general population.
I have worked in the metal cutting industry since the 1970s, starting as an apprentice tool and die maker at GE in Pittsfield. I saw the decline of American might as foreign competition ate our lunch on quality, process improvement and technical advances. Across the Northeast, plants closed and jobs were lost. We had a 20-year era of doom and gloom with talk of how lazy our workforce was and that a sense of entitlement negated efforts to rebound.
Yet, through all that, there was a groundswell in this sector, missed by politicians, left off the map in economic development discussions. America still holds arguably about 23 percent of the world market share in manufacturing. The metal cutting industry has evolved and today competes with all foreign competition. In a change or die scenario it changed with leaps in productivity, quality and lead time reduction.
My current sales region covers Maine to Maryland. I regularly visit plants that manufacture medical implants, aircraft engines and airframe superstructure, railroad wheels and axles, auto and truck engines and their components, gas, oil, and mining equipment, dies and molds for a wide variety of other industries and manufacturers, and this is the short list.
Opportunity in this field has no boundaries for a young person with practical knowledge in math and science, good computer skills and the ability to solve complex problems. Between Pittsfield and the Westfield area, there are over 80 job shops and plants that every day hum to the sound of machine tools. Every one of these facilities faces the dilemma of acquiring skilled workers as older employees retire and as their workloads increase.
From personal experience, I can say that in these plants you would meet some of the very brightest and creative people. Men and women who know how to make things, make things fast, and make them right. Items you use daily but would admit you have no clue how they came to be. Well, they came to be in your backyard, made by your neighbor and your neighbor’s neighbor.
I visited a Westfield plant last week, a place bursting with work, and was told that a local vocational program will graduate 12 eligible machine shop candidates this year, a small number because there is little money available for these programs and they are not promoted. Those 12 will have 50+ local employers vying for their services in metal cutting positions. They will start well above minimum wage and accelerate from there if they have the wits and skills. In time they will develop the talents to work anywhere in the country, earn a good wage and find many career paths open to them in the manufacturing sector. Good CNC programmers and machinists average around $70,000 in Massachusetts, and I know many top people in these plants who earn in excess of $100,000.
I applaud state Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Greg Bialecki and the article, a first sign that someone has awoken to an economic area that needs attention and offers our youth an alternative to a career in a service job.