Job seekers eye work in advanced manufacturing, construction (with chart)

Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Advanced manufacturing, construction and health care are all industries with the greatest growth potential in the Pioneer Valley, according to job experts.

Michael Truckey, director of the Franklin Hampshire Career Center, said it is heartening to see job growth, noting the area’s unemployment rate last year was between 5 and 6.5 percent, compared to the state’s rate of around 7 percent, he said.

Meanwhile, the industries that are growing the most say they cannot find workers who have the skills to do the job — so there may be some training opportunities needed.

“The jobs out there are highly specialized, so the key is finding highly skilled workers,” said Truckey, who works out of an office in Greenfield.

Truckey was referring to advanced manufacturing, an industry that is seeing significant growth in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties. Advanced manufacturing companies use computer programming and other cutting-edge technology to turn out products.

“They’re not on a machine stamping parts, it’s much more computer controlled,” he said. “They’re making products that are going into spaceships and airplanes. You have to know how to program the machines.”

Also seeking skilled workers are construction unions, health care companies and hospitals, and industries related to the tourism business, according to local workforce experts. Truckey said industries driven by tourism, including food service and hospitality, are seeing some growth.

“The jobs that are increasing here are pretty constant,” he said.

Advanced manufacturing

Truckey said the growth in jobs in advanced manufacturing is not because new companies have set up shop here.

“Many of them have always been in our valley and they’ve modified themselves to keep up with the technology within the industry,” he said. Examples include Valley Steel Stamp, also called VSS Inc., and Bete Fog Nozzle in Greenfield, he said.

Last year, to try to meet the demand for workers trained in the techniques, the Middle Skills Manufacturing Initiative program was started at Franklin County Technical School. Local manufacturing companies raised and donated $800,000 to build a state-of-the-art training facility, working in partnership with the school, Greenfield Community College and the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board.

By day, Truckey said, high school students learn there, and by night the facility becomes a place to educate and train adults. They range from college students to unemployed people looking for a new career or longtime machinists who want to keep up with the changing industry. “I’m thinking of the individual who is 60 and he’s going to training,” he said.

Some areas stagnant

Things are not improving across the board in the manufacturing industry. Manufacturing industries in Hampshire and Franklin counties as a whole were projected to lose 443 jobs from 2012 to 2014, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The biggest losers, according to the predictions, will be plastics and rubber products manufacturing, set to lose 9.4 percent of its workers, and fabricated metal product manufacturing, set to lose 5.3 percent of employees.

Because of the downturn in the domestic manufacturing industry, many machine shops that do more traditional kinds of manufacturing are laying off employees when work is slow and then hiring temporary workers to help them fill certain contracts, Truckey said.

“It’s expensive to keep a workforce if you don’t know what the demand is going to be,” he said. “It’s just another way to do business. It’s cost-effective for the employers and the temp agency and the employers can also decide to hire (long-term) the people who take the temporary jobs.”

Comeback kid

The construction industry is primed to make a comeback, especially in Hampden County, according to Pamela Howland, project director of the Amherst workforce development program Community Works.

From 2012 to 2014, Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties are expected to add just over 800 construction jobs, according to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The majority will be in Hampden County, where public dollars are promised to major projects, including $90 million to rebuild areas of Springfield destroyed in the 2011 tornado, $260 million to rebuild a viaduct in Springfield’s North End, and $81 million to reconstruct Springfield’s Union Station.

One privately funded project that did not make it into the state’s numbers — MGM Resorts’ proposed $800 million casino in Springfield — could create an estimated 2,000 construction jobs.

In Holyoke, the state Department of Housing and Urban Development has committed $35 million to rehabilitate part of Lyman Terrace, a dilapidated public housing apartment building that was originally slated for demolition.

“Those projects are really on the books. That’s committed money,” Howland said. By her calculations, about half of the total costs of those projects will go to pay the workers who complete them.

At UMass, projects currently under construction include a 150,000-square-foot academic classroom building, a 49,500-square-foot practice facility for the men’s and women’s basketball teams, new football training facilities and a press box in McGuirk Alumni Stadium, and a central campus infrastructure project that will relocate utilities and improve pedestrian ways.

Howland said other government aid that has been committed to development projects and will spur job growth includes tax credits offered to building owners to improve their properties and Community Preservation Act funds that municipalities have awarded to projects.

While Howland points to publicly funded projects in Springfield and Holyoke, Robert Wilson, business agent for the Springfield chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a member of the Pioneer Valley Building Trades Council, said unions have had a slow couple of months in terms of new jobs.

He said it all goes back to the recession. “The private sector just went away and it hasn’t come back since,” Wilson said.

Public sector projects should provide some jobs, he said, but he has not seen many college or university building contracts. They usually go out to bid this time of year, he said.

“In the last couple months, there’s been nothing to bid on,” he said. “The picture could be a lot better.”

Many construction laborers, electricians and other workers file for unemployment in the off months. Non-union general construction companies may still be getting work, he said, because they tend to do smaller projects, while unions are more likely to take on big jobs like those at UMass or other area colleges.

Howland admitted she and others at Community Works worry about the temporary nature of construction work.

“The problem with large construction projects is they employ a whole mess of people for three years, but when it’s done, it’s done,” she said. “There’s no continuous flow of work.”

But she expects that there will be a demand for trained construction workers and contractors in the coming years. “The labor force is growing older,” she said. “The unions need this. They need networks of younger and more diverse workers.”

Tradespeople like electricians and plumbers are also getting work from the emerging solar industry, Truckey said. Greenfield Community College is offering programs to train those contractors in the skills to install solar hot water and other systems.

Other trends

Job growth in the health care and social assistance industry is another long-term trend in the Valley that is expected to continue in 2014. The state projects that, in Hampshire and Franklin counties, the industry will add 468 jobs from 2012 to 2014, which would grow the workforce by 4 percent.

So-called ambulatory health service workers, including visiting nurses and home health aides, are especially in demand and are expected to add 227 workers, a 5.9 percent growth.

Truckey credits that to a number of training programs that are preparing people for those jobs as well as home care programs and agencies that are promoting options that allow elderly people to get the care they need at home as opposed to heading to nursing homes.

Typically, jobs in hotels, restaurants and retail stores are plentiful, he said, thanks partly to the Valley’s tourism industry. Although there are a few large hotel projects underway, he said most of the jobs are in small businesses such as mom-and-pop restaurants that are opening around the area.

The state projects that the arts, entertainment and recreation industry will add 98 jobs for a 6.1 percent growth, and that accommodation and food services will add 297 jobs for a 3.7 percent increase.

While the retail industry is expected to add 159 jobs for 1.5 percent growth, the state estimates that general merchandise stores will do the best. Stores that specialize in clothing, sporting goods, books and music will lose a total of 49 jobs, it predicted.

Other growth industries, according to the department, include professional, scientific and technical services, which will add 228 jobs for a 9.8 percent increase. The state is expected to have jobs for 128 new managers to head companies and enterprises, which would be an 11.2 percent increase.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.