As New England’s recovery from the Great Recession continues to progress, attention often turns to which sectors will be economic drivers in the future. The central question is: given New England’s deep traditional manufacturing history and its demise in recent decades, what is the outlook now for a transformative revitalization of this sector?
In terms of an overall economic picture, the region is clearly recovering, although the pace of recovery varies significantly among the six states. Massachusetts and Vermont are experiencing the strongest economic performance, while Rhode Island and Maine lag. New Hampshire’s recovery is behind Massachusetts and Vermont. This puts the state in the unusual position of not leading the region, as it has over the last three decades.
Looking forward, the region and New Hampshire are expected to continue to grow slowly, with overall employment growth for the region averaging 1.4 percent per year and regional gross product increasing 3.3 percent each year over the next three years.
Massachusetts has already recovered the jobs lost in the recession, and Vermont will soon follow. New Hampshire is not expected to recover jobs lost in the recession until the middle of 2014.
In New Hampshire and across the region, the resurgence of the manufacturing sector will have a strong impact on the economic outlook. Traditional manufacturing has been on the decline for the last three decades, both here and across the nation. However, New England lost approximately 60 percent of its manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years, while the U.S. lost 40 percent. The impact of these losses has been manifest in the lower total employment growth in New England over this period — fully 50 percent lower than the U.S. average.
On a positive note, the 30-year decline appears to have plateaued. From 2010-12, New England and New Hampshire’s employment in this sector remained flat, rather than continuing to spiral downward. Even with the devastating trends in recent decades, three states in the region currently have a concentration in manufacturing well above the U.S. average: Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut.
From this stepping-off point, we have a number of opportunities to facilitate the reemergence of manufacturing as an economic driver for the region and New Hampshire. Throughout our six states there are educational institutions, nonprofits, companies, towns, cities and states focused on the efforts to revitalize the existing manufacturing base and pave the way for exciting new manufacturing capabilities to take root in the region. Some common themes emerge from their collective work.
New England can generate enormous manufacturing gains if the research and development capabilities are leveraged as a network to proactively support and drive new manufacturing capabilities. Home to high concentration of academic and private-sector research facilities, this region can bring together the talent needed to focus on manufacturing, particularly the emerging advanced and precision manufacturing that is replacing the traditional types of production.
The entire manufacturing sector would benefit from clear messaging about how different today’s manufacturing environments are. They often are pristine, highly innovative and creative, involving challenging, complex processes. Given the reality of that emerging work environment, a particular emphasis on workforce development is required. These are high-paying jobs that require advanced computer and other technical skills. Given the high quality and abundant educational resources available in the region, including the robust community college networks, there is ample opportunity here to equip tomorrow’s workers for the emerging manufacturing environment. If we do, we could dramatically change the region’s economic prospects.
James T. Brett is president and CEO of The New England Council, the nation’s oldest regional business association. Ross Gittell is vice president and New England forecast manager for the New England Economic Partnership and the chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire.