“I think that’s an old story,” says Barry Bluestone, an economist at Northeastern University in Boston. He’s been studying the 7,000 manufacturing businesses in Massachusetts, surveying hundreds of them and making site visits to dozens.

“We’re seeing a new, almost renaissance in manufacturing,” he says. Bluestone says manufacturers are learning new technologies, and new manufacturing technologies are being developed at major universities. Nanotechnology, for example, holds great promise for cutting-edge U.S. manufacturing firms, he says.

From Pink Flamingos To Heart Pumps

Bluestone says he’s seen many companies transform themselves into high-tech competitive operations, whereas before they used to make much lower-tech products — in one case it was lawn ornaments. “The pink flamingos that were made in Leominster, Mass., the plastics capital of New England. .. . Well, that same company is now making medical equipment,” he says.

While many higher-tech firms are growing, other less-competitive firms are dying. And the government projects U.S. manufacturing jobs overall will decline a bit by 2020.

At the same time, though, a lot of manufacturing workers are older — and getting ready to retire. “There are millions of jobs that will open up in manufacturing as the current workforce retires,” Bluestone says. Many of the manufacturers he’s talked to “tell us their No. 1 issue is where will the skilled workers come from to replace those that are retiring today,” he says.