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Editorial: President right to help seed a new manufacturing age

In his State of Union address before Congress Tuesday night, President Obama said the country is finally past the “rubble of crisis” created by the Great Recession. He’s right about that, but the recovery remains an uphill climb.

Unemployment is still high at 7.9 percent. A total of 12.3 million Americans are unemployed. Among those, 4.7 million are classified as long-term unemployed, meaning they’ve been out of work for 27 weeks or more.

Obama articulated the challenge we face, that of creating what he called “ladders of opportunity” to prepare workers for a new economy. He spoke of “a growing economy that creates good middle-class jobs — that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.” And he touched on investing $1 billion in “manufacturing institutes,” hubs of manufacturing activity created by public-private collaborations.

A project designed to do exactly that is under way in the Pioneer Valley. The Franklin Hampshire Middle Skills Manufacturing Initiative, as it’s called, is a collaboration involving the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board and Career Centers, Greenfield Community College and Franklin County Technical School.

The idea is to target the need for highly skilled workers to fill jobs in advanced manufacturing in Hampshire and Franklin counties that are now going unfilled.

In a recent interview with the Gazette, Steven Capshaw, president of Valley Steel Stamp in Greenfield, described his efforts to find the skilled workers he needs as “pointless.”

What’s sorely needed in this area is a pipeline to supply those highly skilled workers, says Capshaw — who is also raising private money to upgrade and modernize equipment at the facilities where training will take place.

The initiative is being designed to give workers the education, critical thinking skills and hands-on training they will need to succeed in the workplace at jobs that pay enough to support a family and provide a decent standard of living.

Robert Pura, president of Greenfield Community College, says the initiative won’t be a short-term fix to place a worker in a low-skill job that could easily disappear in a future downturn.

“We want these to be long-term sustainable jobs,” he said. “We think these jobs are there and we want to help train existing workers and future workers for them.”

If a grant application for $238,000 in state money is approved — and we hope it will be — the project could begin this fall.

On Tuesday night, Obama spoke of the challenge we face as the country sheds outmoded jobs and continues the difficult transition to new ones. He raised the question: “How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs?” In searching for answers, Obama noted that he isn’t advocating for big government, but for “smarter government.”

The Middle Skills Initiative is, to be sure, only a single, small program that addresses one piece of the jobs picture. But we think it holds promise as a smart government, public-private collaboration that can help the nation’s economy move forward.

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