Tony Dobrowolski/Out of the Pages: Living in the present not the past
PITTSFIELD >> We often bemoan the loss of manufacturing jobs here in Berkshire County and with good reason.
Seventy eight percent of the county's manufacturing positions have disappeared since 1970, according to the Berkshire County Regional Planning Commission. I don't have the exact figures, but I suspect those numbers aren't much different nationally.
The big question is, and has been for some time, how do we replace those jobs. I don't have the answer, but lots of people are taking a stab at it. One of them is Thomas Tunstall, a senior research director at the University of Texas at San Antonio Institute for Economic Development whose op-ed, "Where the New Jobs Will Come From" was recently published in the Wall Street Journal.
Tunstall acknowledges that competition from foreign countries has taken manufacturing jobs away from American companies, and that's not hard to see. But he maintains that most of the jobs lost in manufacturing haven't disappeared, they've moved on to the service sector.
By service sector, Tunstall means positions in high tech fields like cloud computing and cyber security . When you think about it, Tunstall's reasoning makes sense given that advances in technology have allowed companies to do almost the same amount of work they used to do with fewer employees.
But what technology gives, it also takes away. As Tunstall points out "rising productivity" is another reason that we have less manufacturing jobs than before. In other words, advances in technology mean fewer people are needed to do the same work that used to require hundreds of employees.
Countries around the world including the U.S. are making as many goods as they ever did, according to Tunstall, but they're doing it with fewer people.
The evolution of manufacturing is still very evident in the Berkshires. The past is represented by those large often vacant mill buildings that dot our local landscape like the skeletons of ancient dinosaurs. Given the size of the machines that were used, and the number of people that those companies employed, it's no wonder that those buildings were constructed like fortresses.
But there are several examples of modern manufacturing around here, too. The buildings aren't as big, the machines are much quieter, and the workplace is generally cleaner. This is the influence that technology has had on modern-day manufacturing.
The new plants are like libraries compared to those hot, noisy, stuffy facilities that our predecessors toiled in.
Here's an example of how modern technology has decimated the traditional workforce. A $100 million natural gas facility was recently built in Texas. It employs only 12 people. Another proposed $120 million manufacturing facility in San Antonio is expected to create fewer than 50 jobs. Imagine what the workforce in those kinds of facilities would have been 20 or 30 years ago.
So Tunstall's reasoning that our lost manufacturing jobs are headed to the service sector makes sense. What's interesting here in the Berkshires, is that some of those high tech jobs in some of these cyber fields are already here. Other existing local businesses are already using some of these cutting edge techniques.
Those firms are small. Some of them fly under the radar, so to speak. But many of them are poised for growth. These are the roots that could propel the future of the Berkshire economy. But we need to pay attention to this trend, not write it off. Sorry, but GE or some other firm like it isn't walking back through that door again any time soon.
So instead of bemoaning the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs in this area, we should embrace the new technology. We've been left behind in the Berkshires before because our economy was one-dimensional and we weren't prepared for the changes. We still haven't completely recovered from that. No one wants to be left at the altar more than once.
The future is calling in the Berkshires. We shouldn't ignore it.
We've recently begun a new feature in The Berkshire Eagle's business section titled "Made in the Berkshires." In it, we profile Berkshire-based businesses that are making unique products. If you know of a business that fits into that category, contact The Eagle's business department at email@example.com
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