Though the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) Index has been indicating a contraction in manufacturing over the last several months, many local manufacturers see a different trend based on their industries.
“The optics and photonics industry is booming right now and continues to grow,” explains Erin Hartgraves, product development and marketing specialist for Omega Optical in Brattleboro.
While Southern Vermont and New Hampshire might seem like unlikely homes for high tech companies, such as Omega, which specializes in optical filters, these areas are brimming with businesses in the smart manufacturing sector.
Many of the companies, which range in specialty from customized catheters to ball bearings and assemblies, came from modest roots and have now become major players in the local economy.
“Omega was started by Brattleboro local, Robert Johnson in 1969. We started out very humbly in a barn on his property,” Hartgraves says.
The business rapidly outgrew its original space and moved to the Stone Church in downtown Brattleboro.
From there, it moved again to the Delta Campus on the edge of the city, a unique location that offers room to grow, as well as a backdrop of beautiful Vermont forests. The campus has building sites for five more industrial developments and an opportunity to integrate 100 residential sites within walking distance.
“Delta is currently in negotiation with a number of potential manufacturers,” Hartgraves says.
This would only increase the demand for qualified workers, and the struggle to find them is real.
“Because technology is so specialized, there is not a significant advantage to location, as the knowledge resources need to be developed locally,” explains Hartgraves.
The requirement is for capable people willing to learn. But that piece of the puzzle continues to prove challenging for companies across the region.
“Manufacturing is in desperate need of machinists and those who know how to problem-solve effectively,” Hartgraves describes.
Whitney Brothers, an educational furniture maker in Keene, faces the same problem (see related story on page 40).
“Unemployment is super low, and those that are unemployed may not necessarily be looking,” says the company’s owner,
Attracting the type of employees that want to be in an industrial setting and have an interest in working with integrated technology is a constant challenge.
“When I started at Whitney Brothers about 20 years ago, we had almost twice the number of employees producing about half of what we’re producing,” Jablonski recalls.
Since then, efficiency and consistency have been optimized thanks to incredible technology that flows throughout
“We’re not necessarily eliminating jobs … we’re getting
some automation to do the jobs that I just can’t hire,”
To find another 45 employees would be nearly impossible, “so we’ve got to use that technology and automate some of those manual processes, like material handling,” he says.
SOLUTIONS ON THE HORIZON?
Ideally, a new generation of young workers would take on some of these roles and grow with local companies. But New Hampshire as a whole has difficulty holding onto its young people after graduation, a problem that has become a focal point in many communities. Area colleges and industrial players have been working on partnerships to try to train and retain young talent.
In fact, Omega is one of the industry leaders that has partnered with Keene State College to develop credential and degree programs in optics engineering and precision manufacturing. Keene State is also reaching out to nearby career and technical education centers to offer students credits for their existing experience, helping them to save money and graduate more quickly.
Another program Keene State hosts is GOSTEM, a camp for girls that gives local industry leaders the opportunity to talk with young people and answer career questions they may have. Omega is one of the program’s enthusiastic supporters and has provided speakers for the camp in past years.
“It is vital to get young adults engaged in technical fields early on so that they develop their passion and go to school for it,” says Hartgraves. “We’d love to see more of the continued support of STEM programs.”
Omega’s Innovation and Training division is working to directly address the ongoing shortage, as well. “Our plan is to build up to an annual rate of four individuals per year who are well-trained in the technology needed for our niche industry,” Hartgraves describes.
The company anticipates significant growth and has a plan to “move up the manufacturing value chain, with steps such as providing assembly of photonic pieces,” according to Hartgraves.
As the operation expands, they’ll need to harness more local talent, as will other manufacturers who are looking forward to a busy
few years ahead.
More workers mean an increased need for affordable housing, another challenging topic going into 2020. The realm of real estate is currently marked by low residential property inventory and a lack of reasonably priced rentals in many areas.
“Our production staff typically don’t live in Keene because they can’t afford to,” Jablonski says.
This can become a big disadvantage for employers because if workers are already commuting, they are often willing to take another job slightly farther away for even a minimal wage increase.
“They’re not necessarily as committed to the organization as they would be if they were living here in town and part of the community,” Jablonski says.
MORE SUPPORT NEEDED FOR AREA
He’d love to hear more discussion amongst city leaders related to supporting area manufacturers and admits that it doesn’t always feel like a priority. For instance, physical changes to Railroad Street, where his company is located, have made it increasingly difficult to receive and ship materials.
“We’re trying to get big tractor-trailers in here to make deliveries,” Jablonski notes.
But new curbs, poles and parking spaces have made that tricky.
“We’ve had to really advocate for ourselves,” he says, adding, “There’s a little bit of a disconnect.”
Some might wonder why a major manufacturer like Whitney Brothers has held onto its downtown location for so long. Part of it is the advantages of its history and existing infrastructure.
But it also begs the question: Where would they go? With no sizeable commercial land available in Keene, manufacturers that are relocating have to look to the outlying towns to meet their needs.
As a byproduct, some of the area’s largest economic drivers are becoming more spread out, spurring smaller towns to more closely examine and try to bolster the infrastructure opportunities they have to offer. Despite these challenges, the Monadnock Region is holding firmly to its unlikely reputation as an industry hub.
“Our roots are definitely here,” Jablonski says. “We like the community; we like the culture; we love living here.”
Manufacturing has a profound history in this part of New England, and that foundation continues to drive business forward.
Caroline Tremblay writes from Richmond, New Hampshire.