Growth, Opportunity, and Innovation at the Crossroads of Manufacturing In North Central Massachusetts
For more than a century, North Central Massachusetts has served as the center of this state’s traditional, legacy manufacturing, making manufacturing one of the most important economic drivers in the region’s niche employment cluster. From the history of Foster Grant, L.S. Starrett and Simonds Industries to Bristol-Myers Squibb, Solvus Global and Wonder Plunger, North Central Massachusetts has served as a crossroads where companies work hard to recruit and retain local workers, a place with a strong local job market and an affordable lifestyle close by New England’s largest cities.
“I’ve lived in the region for close to twenty years, and it was the area’s manufacturing environment that drew me to open my business here,” said Lillian Burkart, Founder, Burkart Flutes and Piccolos, a Shirley-based manufacturer of high-end flutes and piccolos. “This area brings tremendous opportunity in terms of jobs because it is an affordable area to raise a family with many amenities but is still close to the region’s largest cities.”
Burkart Flutes and Piccolos opened for business in 1982 in Stoneham but after being priced out of that market, found themselves in Acton. In 2006, after doing some research on how to make her business more affordable, Burkart made the decision to move to Phoenix Park in Shirley. Close to the intersection of Routes 495 and 2, Shirley offered lower overhead costs. “There’s no better place to be in the state,” Burkart added. “Several of us are manufacturers in this area and it’s truly a hub of innovation and activity.”
As a relatively new manufacturing company, Solvus Global opened for business in 2017 with two employees and zero square footage of manufacturing space. Today, the company boasts 54 employees and 48,000 square feet of manufacturing space serving the aerospace, defense, and recycling industries. As post-doctorate graduates from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, co-founders Sean Kelly and Aaron Birt were drawn to the startup community Worcester offers but decided to expand their business to Leominster. “We needed a secondary campus and in Leominster we get this strong manufacturing-bound city that also has a small-town culture and a range of community offerings,” noted Kelly. “By renovating an existing plastics factory warehouse, we were reminded of where manufacturing got its start in central Massachusetts, and we hope to provide it with a flavor of where it is headed in the future.”
As a UL-listed control panel shop, Applewood Controls, Inc., needed a new space to grow, preferably one with a ground-level entrance and loading dock. Applewood President Randy Furmanick found that magic combination in Ayer in 2019. “We needed to stay in the region so our employees could remain close to home, but we also needed to find the right spot for us,” said Furmanick. “After purchasing the building, we did an extensive remodel and added square footage. But in the middle of the remodel, we were hit with the pandemic. It did cause some delays, but Ayer has been a great fit and we are currently in a growth pattern and hiring.”
With 11 employees currently working at Applewood, Furmanick said the decision to invest in North Central Massachusetts was an easy decision since the region is home to a wide range of technology and biotech companies. “This region has a high level of technical manufacturing, and our central location allows employees to reverse their commute, going from the cities into our region for the jobs, rather than the other way around.”
With local cities and towns across the region revitalizing and rejuvenating their centers with restaurants, activities, rail trails, and other community-focused amenities, it is becoming an increasingly tempting proposition for city-dwellers to not just visit the area, but to stay and live here. “These are all of the things people tend to gravitate to locally, so it’s not just about more affordable housing, but about the communities who support that housing,” Furmanick explained. “That mindset and outreach is just as big a factor for people who want to stay and raise a family here.” Kelly at Solvus Global agrees. “In every step of Solvus’ growth journey, the surrounding community as grown right along with us,” he said. “We make it our mission to attract, support, and retain these talented people living in our region.”
Manufacturing firms employed more than 14,200 workers in North Central Massachusetts in 2019. That’s about 15 percent of the region’s total employment. Contrary to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which experienced a two percent decline in manufacturing jobs between 2014 and 2019, manufacturing employment in North Central Massachusetts actually grew by three percent, or
more than 440 jobs during that same period. In the region, chemical manufacturing is the fastest growing subsector, employing nearly 1,700 workers, with plastics and rubber products representing the largest manufacturing subsector with more than 2,400 local jobs.
For Solvus Global, building the right team is incredibly important, and Kelly said the right fit is well worth the company’s time and effort. “There is no better feeling than watching a company you truly believe in grow as Solvus has in the last few years. Every team member we have brought on brings incredible talent, dedication, and drive.”
Autumn Minery, Manager, Human Resources, Solvus Global agrees noting “with the addition of diverse backgrounds, skillsets, and personalities, you can feel the culture at Solvus evolving just as we hoped it would; our people have definitely fueled our company to date and will continue to do so as we look to the future.” The company, which has 15 career opportunities currently posted, found recruiting success by diversifying benefits packages and sourcing applicants from a variety of platforms, including the North Central Massachusetts Chamber’s jobs board.
Burkart Flutes and Piccolos said their recruiting success benefitted from a creative recruiting and retention approach, especially given the intricacies of manufacturing world-class musical instruments. What started as a business of one person has expanded to 22 employees today, with all instruments made of precious metals of solid silver, platinum and gold by an experienced and diverse group of employees (some of whom are musicians themselves) who love to work with their hands. “We have a talented team, and more than half of our staff is female,” said Burkart.
Though based in North Central Massachusetts, the company sells more than 50 percent of its instruments domestically with the rest going to musicians in every corner of the world. They serve a wide range of customers from symphony orchestras and training centers to aspiring musicians and amateurs. “A working musician needs a tool, but an amateur may be playing just for the enjoyment of making music,” she said. “Our instruments are definitely an investment tool for professional musicians, but we can also offer something at an intermediate level to make our products more accessible to less experienced musicians.”
But it’s not just about the customer. Burkart recently took employee engagement to the next level and offered shares of the company to her employees. “With this opportunity, I just welcomed 22 new business owners to the local economy,” she added. “I want to provide not just a job, but a long-term future to keep people and their families thriving in this area.”
One of the more pressing challenges for the region’s manufacturing employers is attracting and retaining younger workers who are interested in the region’s most concentrated areas of employment in health care, advanced manufacturing, and government and public services industries. While these sectors represent strong and stable industries, job opportunities in health care and manufacturing offer a wide array of pay grades that require both highly skilled, intermediate and entry-level workers. At the same time, the region’s industrial sector has experienced an increase in higher-paying, higher-tech firms within chemical manufacturing, electronic product manufacturing, research & development, and computer systems design, among others.
“Manufacturing used to be standing in front of a machine with not a lot of thought process. Today, there is so much more to manufacturing, such as robotics, and we need to start educating parents about the opportunity for future generations to have successful careers in manufacturing so we can reverse the skills gap,” said Furmanick.
Applewood decided to work directly with local technical and vocational high schools to combat the skills gap. “We are licensed electricians, and we are seeing a shortage in the number of up-and-coming electricians who can work in both industrial and residential settings,” he said. “If we can get to the youth, we can hopefully excite them about the opportunities available to them for long-term, successful careers.”
Kelly said he is starting to see a shift toward advanced manufacturing, which resulted in the creation of a workforce training program to improve and support the manufacturing industry in the region. “We want to bring the region back to its industrial roots,” added Kelly. “We foresee the nucleus of additive manufacturing forming right here in New England. The truth is manufacturing overall is becoming increasingly important to local economies because it offers a lot of growth potential to the region’s workforce and that will cultivate a surge in job creation and economic turnaround.”
“The North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce is putting manufacturing at the forefront of job creation in our region. I believe that by supporting trade schools and showing students that we have great manufacturing jobs with clean work environments as well as opportunities for advancement and training, we can actively recruit youth into manufacturing,” said Burkart. “Our biggest challenge is hiring, and we cannot pretend to compete with the Greater Boston area. We need to create our own pocket of success in the region, and companies here need to appreciate and understand that training and education are a key component to having a successful workforce.”
Solvus Global’s Kelly believes manufacturing, and particularly advanced manufacturing, is unique in that it cuts across a wide swath of academic, industrial and government entities. “Our success depends on our ability to bridge the innovation gap by the identifying critical manufacturing needs and successfully scaling key research concepts into commercially-sustainable solutions,” he said.
“As individuals and businesses, we need to look at how supply chain disruptions have impacted our daily lives, especially those long-term supply chain issues which have proved how dependent we are on off-shored products for our day-to-day lives,” added Burkart. “Our boats have been rocked in the last few years and we need to steady our sails with a stronger local supply chain in the years to come.”
Furmanick echoes Burkart and encourages all people to buy local and buy American-made products as much as possible to help rebuild the once thriving American supply chain and resolve the supply issues our country is experiencing. “When you purchase locally, you know where it is made, who made it, and where they are located,” said Furmanick. “There are shortages of everything right now and some of those issues are related to imported products. This will take time to recover, and I suspect we will experience a shift, but I hope it’s a positive shift for future generations.”
As the challenges of the supply chain, inflation and the skills gap put increasing pressure on our manufacturing businesses, it’s clear they are thinking outside of the box and looking to our communities to help them overcome these challenges, to show that this region is an effective crossroad where growth, opportunity and innovation thrive.