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From the Desk of Jack Healy

Establishing Collaborative Manufacturing Communities: The Time is Now

Jack Healy – The voice of manufacturing in Massachusetts
Jack Healy –
The Voice of Manufacturing in Massachusetts

By Jack Healy, Director of Operations, MassMEP jackh@massmep.org

Recently, we were impressed when a delegation of union presidents, representing the 63,000 members of the Japanese Optical Industry Workers, asked to visit MassMEP to review our reskilling program. This program provides basic skills technical training for entry level machinists. The Japanese camera industry, like our own, is undergoing a dramatic change since the public started relying on their smartphones to take pictures. The significance of this change was framed by market research firm IDC, which reported that last year's worldwide compact camera sales dropped more than 40%.

As The Economist magazine noted, "Over the past couple of years, smartphones like Apple's iPhone and the numerous Android equivalents have been offering something camera's have been unable to match: seamless connectivity. Whereas popular photography was once all about making prints for family albums, its main purpose today is for uploading images to Instagram, Twitter, or even Facebook. Here, the ability to transmit pictures instantly to social networks with the swipe of a finger has immense appeal. Smartphones do this better than the fanciest of digital cameras. And while camera-makers have rushed to add WiFi to their latest models, the implementations have left a lot to be desired."

MassMEP, WPI, and leaders from the Japanese Optical Industry Workers Union.
MassMEP, WPI, and leaders from the Japanese
Optical Industry Workers Union.

The public values instant connectivity above everything, spelling a significant change for the existing camera market that is still focused on improving picture quality. 

Recognizing the Japanese marketing myopia of focusing on technical improvements over consumer preferences, the visiting union presidents are looking to see if there are work alternatives for their members. The focus of their visit was to understand how the MEP:

  • Is helping companies to improve worker skills and quality in manufacturing,
  • Assists manufacturers in reskilling their employees, and 
  • Determines in which industries to train people.

While all of their member companies compete, the unions see their purpose as, "Protection of the living rights and improvement of their members' social status by mutual close cooperation."
They accomplish this by a mutual exchange of information through the interaction of their members and by learning best practices in foreign countries. All of this is a nice example of
the collaboration that is somewhat scarce here in the U.S.

The union presidents were also interested in learning what kind of manufacturing has stayed  in this country, as well as what type of manufacturer is bringing back manufacturing jobs that are currently abroad. All large Japanese manufacturers, similar to our own large manufacturers, have moved much of their production facilities offshore. The cumulative effect of this has changed the former Japanese practice of lifelong employment; 40% of their current workforce is contingent (temporary) workers.

The business turbulence and transformations seen throughout the world are hallmarks of today's global economy.  How various countries deal with these issues varies.  Here in the U.S., we have been fortunate to have some of the best minds available, including our own union leaders, to study and analyze the changes affecting our manufacturing base. Our problem is not identifying the issues, but getting someone interested enough to both listen and act. A good example of this is the "Clarion Call for Competitiveness" study developed and issued by the Council on Competitiveness that states:

The United States must better support its most valuable resource…its people. Many businesses say that they cannot find the skilled workers that they need. At the same time, many Americans lack the education and skills needed to secure high-paying jobs in our complex, technology-based economy, inducing greater income inequality, and a persistent high rate of unemployment. The uneven performance of America's K-12 schools, the high cost of education, and the need for better technical skills training are cracks in America's foundation for success that must be corrected. American entrepreneurs -- a job creation engine and globally coveted asset -- are struggling. New business establishments have dropped significantly in recent years, and our small businesses are burdened by high tax and regulatory costs. As U.S. businesses try to scale up from small to mid size to large firms, tax and regulatory challenges impede every step of the way.

The Council's recommendations as to where America needs to be are summarized in the following three initiatives that should be immediately undertaken. The goal is to:

  • Ensure lower cost, easy access to high quality education and training for all Americans.
  • Maintain long-term federal investments in science and technology leadership.
  • Reform and simplify the tax code to stimulate investment and attract global capital.

To ensure these proposed changes are accomplished will take a collaborative approach and a belief by federal legislators in the value of manufacturing to our economy. This is no small task. Which might make you think that the Japanese union leaders have a much better chance of effecting change to address their own problems than we do with ours.

We would like to hear from anyone who believes otherwise, and who has an interest in turning the problems facing our manufacturing community into opportunities. The MassMEP will be working across the state to facilitate the "Collaborative Manufacturing Communities" initiatives, focused on the development of local ecosystems of support for all manufacturers. Interested parties should contact: Greg King at 508-831-7020 for details.

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