Unsexy but tech-forward industries offer hope to middle class
Boston Globe - 02/11/2015
In the Brookings “advanced industries” rankings, Silicon Valley was far and away the leader. Usual tech suspects Seattle and Boston ranked highly, too; Boston, a solid eighth, might have placed higher had researchers factored in more of the health care sector into their calculations. Just as striking, though, is the prominence of unsung metro areas like Palm Bay, Fla., and Wichita. Their hometown industries get little hype — most politicians and reporters know more about iPhone apps than farm machinery — but still grow more sophisticated over time. In Massachusetts, says economist Barry Bluestone of Northeastern University, “There’s a dramatic rejuvenation of a lot of industries that you’d think would be gone by now.” Local workers work on precision mechanical components; plastics firms now make parts for medical devices.
Business leaders and workforce experts say high schools and community colleges should work closely with key local industries to guarantee a steady supply of skilled workers. That’s controversial partly because the list of local specialties changes over time. In the heyday of Wang Laboratories and Digital Equipment Corporation, the share of Boston-area workers employed at computer and peripherals makers was 6.4 times the national average. Since then, local employment in that industry has plunged by three-fourths. Fortunately, good schools made Massachusetts a fertile ground for software publishing and scientific research. Expanding other advanced industries in Boston, argues Joan Fitzgerald of Northeastern, will require not just a skilled workforce but greater investment. (Neither Bluestone nor Fitzgerald was involved in the Brookings study.)