Category: Op-ed

Supporting local businesses this holiday season supports local jobs

In Masslive 12/13/17

Holidays are usually a rush — managing cook times so you don’t burn the latkes or the cookies, taking the kids to the Nutcracker and the school holiday parties, and, of course, getting the shopping done.

It’s this last one I want to discuss.

I hope that, in the rush of the holiday season, you’ll remember to stop at a small business for some of your shopping.

Supporting small businesses supports jobs in our community.

In Massachusetts, there are more than 600,000 small businesses, which together employ about half of the Commonwealth’s private workforce.

Across the country, small businesses (those with fewer than 500 employees) make up 99.7 percent of all U.S. employers, according to 2012 data from the Small Business Administration.

Small businesses are responsible for 64 percent of net new private-sector jobs — so “shopping small” may even support the job you want to apply for one day.

State government can play a big role in supporting these businesses and helping them stay competitive in an increasingly globalized marketplace. There are resources we can provide to make state rules and guidelines easier to navigate. Many regulations turn into roadblocks, and complicated licensing and permitting requirements hinder growth when they should be enhancing competition.

State government can and should be a partner.

One example is the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Regional Office, which provides free one-on-one business advising to help existing small businesses develop growth plans and financial forecasting charts.

That is why I’ll be touring a handful of local businesses with the East of the River Five-Town Chamber of Commerce this month. I want to hear directly from small business owners about the issues they face, including the regulatory environment, and how the state can be more responsive to their needs.

Among the companies I’ll be visiting are Robert Charles Photography in East Longmeadow (great for your family Christmas card), Delaney’s Market in Longmeadow (the perfect stop to build your New Year’s cheese board) and Pop’s Biscotti and Chocolate in Wilbraham (which makes a great mid-shopping snack break).

Visiting these small businesses helps me get a sense of their day-to-day pressures and what they are doing to stay competitive in Western Mass.

Especially at a time when the whole state is buzzing with the hope of bringing Amazon’s second headquarters to Massachusetts, we need to remember that our local retailers are driving our state’s economy.

The consolidation of mom and pop shops into big box stores has taken a wrecking ball to our local economies. Through tax incentives and other means, our State Legislature should ensure that companies like the many family-owned small businesses, handed down from generation to generation, can still survive — and thrive — in our communities,.

Supporting small businesses is also vital to keeping our young talent here. How wonderful would it be if families saw their young college grads not just during the holidays a few times a year, but all year round? Creating and sustaining more job opportunities here would enable more of our young people to work and raise their families here, instead of moving away for better job prospects elsewhere.

So, this holiday season I urge you to patronize our local businesses — such as the many local craft makers and artisans selling their wares at the Downtown Springfield Holiday Market in The Shops at Marketplace.

And, whichever holiday you celebrate this season, I hope it is happy, healthy and filled with family and friends.

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State Sen. Eric P. Lesser is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the Massachusetts State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

How we’re fighting our Western Mass. ‘hunger epidemic’

In Masslive 11/20/17

Every morning, a truck pulls up to Atlas Farm in Deerfield. It gets loaded up with fresh vegetables, and heads to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

Another Western Mass farm, Our Family Farm in Greenfield, provides fresh milk to food banks across the state.

This partnership, the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP), has supported our local farmers, linked diverse communities like Hatfield and Springfield together — and helped feed thousands of our neighbors who go hungry every month.

“Hunger is a hidden epidemic in this country,” Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, has said.

And he’s right.

But the problem is visible if you look hard enough here in Western Mass. The average number of people in Hampden County seeking extra food each month because they can’t afford enough is more than 44,000. In Hampshire County, it is more than 15,000, according to data from the Food Bank of Western Mass.

A third of these are children.

In addition to children, another vulnerable group is the elderly, many of whom rely on Meals on Wheels, a federal food delivery program. Cuts to this program in the federal budget compound our region’s hunger epidemic — and make it that much more urgent for Massachusetts to fill the gap for our families.

That is why fighting hunger is so important to me.

Earlier this year, Rep. Peter Kocot and I sponsored budget amendments in the House and Senate to increase funding for MEFAP and provide two million more meals than last year. MEFAP is responsible for a fourth of the food that is distributed by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, serving as both a vital source of income for our local farmers and a lifeline to the hungry and homeless in Massachusetts.

I am also cosponsoring a bill introduced by Sen. Sal DiDomenico to close the “SNAP gap.” Many who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in Massachusetts do not know they are eligible, and either go hungry or go to soup kitchens instead of receiving the help they need to pay for groceries.

This legislation would create a common application so that those applying for MassHealth could at the same time apply for the nutrition assistance they need.

Fortunately, there is plenty you can do in addition to the work being done in our state Legislature.

Start a food drive at work. Donate or volunteer for Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen in Chicopee or Rachel’s Table in Springfield. Bring clothes and food to the Springfield Rescue Mission.

On Monday, Nov. 20, come participate in the eighth annual “Monte’s March,” a community walk through Springfield, Chicopee and up to Northampton to raise money and awareness for tackling food insecurity in our region.

We have an obligation to help those who need help the most — and it is easier than you think, once you get started.

This Thanksgiving, as we prepare to enjoy a meal with loved ones, I hope you’ll spare a thought for those who need a meal themselves — and I hope you’ll spare some food for them, too.

State Sen. Eric P. Lesser is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the Massachusetts State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

Greater Springfield could be home to future laser industry

In Masslive 10/19/17

A hyper-concentrated beam of light, operated by a highly-trained laser technician, can zap rust off metal, return eyesight to 20/20 and help military scouts detect landmines.

This is not science fiction or even future science; this is the world in which we are currently living. Laser technology is pivotal to developing countless industries that are reshaping our economy and our way of life, from driverless cars to the facial recognition software used in the latest iPhone.

The Greater Springfield region is known for many manufacturing “firsts.” We also know that Springfield sits in a strategic location — the “Crossroads of New England” — between the country’s first major ports at Boston to the east, Albany to the west and New York to the south.

But did you know that we are also living in the country’s “Laser Corridor”?

Springfield Technical Community College has one of the premiere photonics (or “lasers”) training programs in the state and even the country. And it’s one of the major stops on the I-90 corridor between the programs at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

In other words, Springfield is perfectly positioned to be an essential site in the growing laser industry. And, with the right investments, policy choices and public-private partnerships, we can make sure our region seizes this opportunity and becomes the “Silicon Valley of Lasers.”

In April, I joined industry representatives and Professor Lionel Kimerling, director of MIT’s own photonics program, to see STCC’s program in action.

I watched as students in STCC’s Photonics Lab used lasers to shave blocks of titanium and even engrave a beer glass with my name as a parting gift. They worked under the direction of Professor Nicholas Massa, an inspiring instructor who previously told Masslive, “The applications are huge. Aerospace, biomedical, automotive — you name it, anything that’s manufactured there’s probably a laser involved in that process.”

Last month, STCC announced that it is working with MIT on proposing a state-of-the-art photonics “factory” on STCC’s campus in Springfield. MIT launched the first Photonics Education and Practice Factory this past spring, and Quinsigamond Community College and Worcester Polytechnic Institute — both in Worcester — are already planning the second.

While there is much talk nationally about the decline of manufacturing, we are poised to buck this trend in Massachusetts because of the quality of our workers and the strength of our institutions.

But we need to be proactive and strategic on a number of overlapping fronts. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center provides investment in cutting-edge technologies just like this. It needs our support, and steady state funding, to continue building on these innovations and enabling Massachusetts to be the first to find them.

We also need to invest in vocational education — like the program at STCC — that trains the workers who will be implementing these innovations. That training must adapt to an industry that is changing by the day.

This is not a partisan issue. Earlier this month, Gov. Baker announced $7 million in funding for advanced manufacturing projects through the Massachusetts Manufacturing Innovation Initiative. This is welcome news.

But we also need to champion our region and the resources we have here. Most of this funding went to projects in Eastern Massachusetts; we need to make sure more of it comes here. Placing Springfield at the center of the “laser” industry’s development will create new jobs and new businesses for many generations to come.

Photo credit: Dan Glaun, Masslive

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State Sen. Eric P. Lesser is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the Massachusetts State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

Civics and news media literacy are vital components of a 21st century education

In Masslive 9/13/17

Last year, in a nationwide poll, only a third of adults could name all three branches of government.

According to some test results, 45 percent of 12th graders were unable to explain how citizens could change a law.

Our schools prepare our students for college, for work and for adulthood. But we have been missing a vital component in our students’ education: the role schools play in educating the citizen.

Increasing rates of cynicism among young people are leading to a historic lack of trust in our institutions. Pew Research tells us that Millennials distrust institutions more than any generation before them did.

As we rethink our needs in public education, civics must be considered one of those needs. That’s why I’ve been working with a group of my colleagues in the Legislature, including Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler of Worcester and State Representative Jay Kaufman of Lexington, on a comprehensive approach to restoring civics education in Massachusetts.

But civics is only half of the solution. Students also need to have the ability to critically examine information, to know where their information is coming from and whether their sources are reliable or not.

News media literacy is the second half of this critical education in civics.

That is why I introduced legislation to encourage school districts to teach civics and news media literacy.

The legislation directs the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to establish voluntary pilot programs to test the curriculum on news media literacy and include a civics participation project at least once in elementary school and at least once in high school.

Now is the perfect time to have this conversation, as researchers, educators and advocates come together to rewrite the MCAS for the 21st century.

What should a 21st century education look like?

I think many would agree that a modern education requires being able to grapple with tough questions – and being able to cite your sources. It means being able to tell the difference between “fake news” and fearless reporting – and putting more value on the latter.

Civics and news media literacy are vital components of this “21st century education.”

Take, for example, a survey of young people conducted by Tufts’ Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. It found that young people who recalled memorable civic education experiences were more likely to vote, to form political opinions and to know campaign issues.

Importantly, civics education does not lead to partisanship.

While it made the students more likely to vote, it did not make them more likely to support one party or one candidate over another.

Put simply, civics education makes students better citizens.

School was never meant just to prepare students for careers; it was also meant to turn students into lifelong learners.

What use is an education if our students cannot use it to make the world a better place? To challenge old ways of doing things and use their talents to the fullest?

This, after all, is what I think a “21st century education” should be all about.

Sen. Eric P. Lesser is the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the Massachusetts State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

Patent trolls are trolling startups in Massachusetts — and we need to change that

In Masslive 8/11/17

In a recent episode of the HBO series “Silicon Valley,” Richard Hendricks is getting his tech startup off the ground when he comes face to face with a patent troll: an unscrupulous lawyer who claims Richard’s new company is committing copyright infringement.

The lawyer knows his claim is bogus, but also knows Richard would have to pay him in a legal settlement to avoid battling it out in court.

This is not just the stuff of TV fiction. This is real life, and it’s costing billions of dollars in frivolous lawsuits and lost business opportunities.

With an average lawsuit costing $1.6 million, the deceptive actions of patent trolls add up quickly. In 2015 alone, trolls robbed companies of $7.4 billion. One study puts the number much higher, costing companies $29 billion per year.

Fortunately for Richard, he outsmarted the troll and got his case dismissed. But too many of our small businesses and young entrepreneurs are falling prey to patent trolls.

One such company is Carbonite, a startup based in Boston that offers data backup and storage on the cloud. As the CEO, Mohamad Ali, told the state Senate in testimony on July 20, Carbonite spent well over $5 million fighting a troll that falsely claimed the company was infringing certain patents.

Only after winning the case in front of a jury did Carbonite learn from the U.S. Patent Office that the patents the trolls claimed were not even valid.

Congress, which traditionally regulates intellectual property, has sat on their hands. There are still no federal rules in place to protect innovators from trolls.

In the vacuum, more than 30 states have stepped in to protect intellectual property and defend their startup businesses. It’s time for Massachusetts to act.

In the State Senate, Sen. Richard Ross and I have filed legislation that would prohibit a person from making a bad faith assertion of patent infringement. The legislation would also create a legal means for companies to defend themselves from such claims.

If the bill passes, patent trolls in Massachusetts could be held liable for damages such as lost business opportunities when a company is forced to shift resources and attention to fighting fraudulent lawsuits.

There is clear evidence that laws like these prevent business losses and promote growth, both for the tech industry and for individual companies.

The first published study of the effects of anti-patent troll laws showed that these state laws led to an increase in employment at small firms in high-tech industries, who are often the targets of trolls.

The same study showed that anti-troll legislation leads to fewer business bankruptcies and more investment in startup firms.

Once the threat of a lawsuit is removed, venture capital firms are more willing to invest in startups because they no longer have to worry that the companies will fold under the expense of legal battles.

This is particularly important for Massachusetts, the number two state in the country for tech innovation. The Bay State economy relies on young college grads tinkering, with the hopes of developing the next Microsoft, Facebook or Vertex.

Patent trolls might have stopped Bill Gates from creating Microsoft or prevented Mark Zuckerberg from creating Facebook.

They should be tamed before they kill the next great innovation that transforms our economy.

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Sen. Eric P. Lesser is the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the Massachusetts State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

We need a structure to prevent the price hike of prescription drugs

In Masslive 6/30/17

During the Senate’s debate on my proposal to create a bulk purchase program for EpiPens, I read an open letter from Dr. Mark Kenton of Mercy Medical Center to the CEO of Mylan, maker of the EpiPen.

Dr. Kenton wrote, “You do not know the look on a patient’s face when they are struggling to breathe after a bee sting … You have never seen the look of a parent when their child is unresponsive … You have never performed CPR on a child … You have never told a parent that their child is dead.”

After reading this, I could have heard a pin drop on the Senate floor.

As a young parent, I am outraged by the idea that a family would have to pick between protecting their child and breaking the bank.

Since 2009, the price of an EpiPen has spiked nearly 500 percent, from $103.50 to more than $608.61 in 2016.

More than 10,000 school students in Massachusetts rely on EpiPens for emergencies. Our families are too vulnerable to price-gouging by greedy pharmaceutical CEOs doing their best to game a broken system.

And it’s not just EpiPens: there has been an alarming trend of price hikes in recent years.

In 2015, for example, Martin Shkreli, then CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, raised the price of a drug used to treat AIDS overnight from $13.50 a tablet to $750.

This February, after naloxone proved to be effective at reversing opioid overdoses, one manufacturer more than doubled the price of a twin-pack of injectors from $690 to $4,500.

The cruel reality of these price hikes is that they happen years after the drugs are developed, so the increase in profits is not going to the scientist who found the cure, but the CEOs, financiers, and middlemen who exploit the system.

One way to help protect families from this blatantly unfair pricing is bulk purchasing.

Last year, Massachusetts began implementing a bulk purchase program for Narcan, another name for naloxone, after a bill I introduced became law in 2015.

The program enables first responders to buy large numbers of doses at reduced prices, the same way Costco, Walmart, or Amazon can. Thanks to this program, our police and fire departments are paying $35 per dose while the market cost is over $75.

Now, the State Senate is hoping to repeat this success with a bulk purchase program for EpiPens. Under the leadership of Senate President Stan Rosenberg and Ways and Means Chair Karen Spilka, the Senate included such a program in the Senate budget.

But we can’t play whack-a-mole. It’s not enough to chase after each medicine one at a time as the price shoots up. We need a structure that prevents the price hike in the first place.

That’s why the Senate also supported an initiative to study bulk purchasing of all drugs of public health concern.

Our families can’t continue to be at risk of random, sporadic price spikes when they need these medicines the most. Our citizens — and patients — need to be protected.

That’s what bulk purchasing would do.

What Dr. Kenton has seen should shock all of us and motivate each of us to change a broken system.

Sen. Eric P. Lesser is chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies & vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

What I learned from my father’s service in the National Guard

In Masslive 5/18/17

Back in 2008 I got an interesting phone call from my dad. He was signing up to join the Massachusetts Army National Guard at the age of 56.

My dad had run a family medical practice in Holyoke for many years. One of his patients, who was a veteran himself, told him about the chronic shortage of doctors in the armed services. So he took matters into his own hands and signed up to help.

Less than two years later, he flew out for his first tour of duty: staffing a troop medical clinic at a U.S. base in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.

I learned a few things from my father’s service.

First, our men and women in uniform make tremendous sacrifices, and so do their families. My mom was left alone for several months to manage on her own while worrying about her husband’s safety. Thousands of our military families in Massachusetts face much tougher situations.

Second, I learned the essential role the broader civilian community must play in supporting service-members and their families. Our National Guard, in particular, are often called “citizen-soldiers” because they are expected to put their private lives and careers on hold, sometimes on a moment’s notice. And their absence is felt by the community around them.

For my dad, this meant asking other doctors and healthcare providers to cover his patients and keep the practice running while he was overseas.

In Massachusetts, we should be especially proud of the role we played with the nation’s first National Guard, dating back to the first minuteman who fired the shot heard round the world.

I also learned about the many ways we need to improve care for our veterans, and about the unique challenges our men and women in uniform — and their families — face on a daily basis.

These include very real anxieties, from re-entering the civilian workforce to worrying about their families while they are away. There are several items I’m working on in the Massachusetts Senate aimed at addressing these unique needs.

Veterans also come back with a variety of skills that should transfer seamlessly to careers in engineering, vehicle mechanics, police training and others. Unfortunately, many of our state requirements for professional licenses still don’t recognize these skills, sometimes forcing veterans to retake training they already received in the armed services. I filed a bill, “An Act to aid military service members in finding civilian employment,” to correct this.

As the sun sets on the World War II generation, we have a large number of veterans from Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and the war on terror who will take their place. They deserve our gratitude and our care, which is why I continue to fight to protect the Holyoke Soldiers Home.

As Memorial Day approaches, each of us has a solemn obligation to honor those who, as Abraham Lincoln said, “have borne the battle.”

That commitment must go beyond mere words. It must be reflected in our actions and, most importantly, in the laws our citizen-soldiers fight to defend.

Sen. Eric P. Lesser is chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

How to turn Western Massachusetts into a high-tech hub

In Masslive 4/13/17

Those of us in Western Mass. watched for two generations as the 128 corridor boomed and greater Boston turned into one of the world’s great tech centers.

Meanwhile, our largely manufacturing-based economy, once a thriving ecosystem, was unable to compete as the technology revolution took hold and policymakers focused elsewhere — leading to a steady economic decline over the last several decades.

But there’s reason to be optimistic that we can transition to compete: The startup and innovation economy that was once concentrated in greater Boston has been planting seeds west of 495. Greentown Labs opened a Springfield office last year and a new Innovation Center is opening in Springfield this summer, as just two examples.

It’s our obligation — and our opportunity — to take advantage of this emerging trend and grow the tech economy in Western Mass. Indeed, it’s never been cheaper and easier to launch a tech venture outside of traditional startup hubs, given the declining cost of mobile internet technology and the proliferation of big data.

So, how do we jumpstart things here in Western Mass.?

Booming tech centers have three things in common: connectivity, access to capital and large numbers of skilled workers.

The connections are already happening.

Last week, for example, I brought researchers from MIT on a tour of the “Laser Lab” at Springfield Technical Community College. We discussed the role Western Massachusetts could play at the center of a corridor between New York and Boston known as the “Silicon Valley of lasers.” This sector alone will need to fill as many as fifty thousand jobs in the coming years — imagine what that could mean for Western Mass.

We need to make these connections permanent with an east-west rail link from Springfield to Boston, and north-south along the Pioneer Valley and into New York City.  Now that Union Station is reopening after four decades, the timing has never been better.

Next, our local entrepreneurs should get the capital they need, without moving to Boston or San Francisco once their ideas get off the ground. One way to do this is by providing a tax credit to investors who put their money into small businesses getting started in Gateway Cities like Springfield, Chicopee, Pittsfield and Holyoke. If a new business can get the funding it needs here, it’s much more likely to stay in Western Mass and hire local workers.

The third component is a well-trained workforce.

Western Mass needs an educated workforce ready to take advantage of the new innovation economy. Making college, particularly community college, affordable and accessible is critical for developing tomorrow’s workers and entrepreneurs. I also filed legislation to provide student loan assistance for young people who live and work in a Gateway City after graduation — because they will be the ones getting our new tech ecosystem going.

Connecting east and west, injecting capital into Western Mass and promoting workforce development would go a long way toward making the western part of our state as vibrant and competitive as the tech center to our east. The result will be thousands of new jobs and the chance to ensure every region of Massachusetts lives up to its potential.

Sen. Eric P. Lesser is chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

It’s time for a student loan bill of rights in Massachusetts

In Masslive 3/17/17

A college degree has never cost so much. Since the Baby Boomers were students, the price of a diploma has shot up more than 1,000 percent. As a result, it’s becoming impossible for middle class families to pay for higher education without taking on substantial debt. In Massachusetts, the average student loan debt has increased by nearly 75 percent over the past decade, from $17,000 to more than $29,000.

As a result, even the most responsible student loan borrowers find it hard to stay afloat, especially in the face of a dysfunctional system that protects banks and loan servicers instead of students and their families.

Last fall, as just one example, ACS Education Services, a federal student loan servicer, was accused of charging excessive late fees and flooding borrowers with harassing debt collection calls.

Right now, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is pursuing Navient for steering borrowers into costly repayment plans, supplying wrong information about their loans and ignoring borrowers’ requests for help.

There is a disturbing pattern here. Too many students don’t know what their rights are when it comes to borrowing loans to pay for school. Banks and servicers often make the terms as confusing as possible and take advantage of students with deceptive practices. Once students fall behind, they don’t know where to turn for help.

That’s why State Rep. Natalie Higgins of Leominster and I introduced the Student Loan Bill of Rights. This law, modeled after a successful effort in Connecticut, will give students and their families new rights and protections as they navigate the loan repayment process.

First, the bill will create a Student Loan Ombudsman to defend the interests of students. This appointed official will be a one-stop customer service shop so students can clearly understand their rights and responsibilities. In a system filled with advocates for the banks, there will finally be a dedicated advocate for students and their families.

Second, the bill will enhance oversight of student loan servicers. It will create new standards to prevent abusive practices like misleading students and harassing them with late-night debt collection calls.

Third, the law will empower the Commissioner of Banks to investigate loan servicers who break the rules — and to deliver results.

Finally, the Student Loan Bill of Rights will give the state new power to fine servicers who break the rules. It can also require servicers to repay students who have been taken advantage of.

There is much more we have to do, of course. It is essential to lower the cost of higher education, especially at our community colleges, state colleges, and universities. We also need more support for vocational and technical training, and we need to expect our universities — both public and private — to do a better job controlling costs.

But protecting students’ rights in the borrowing process is an important step. At a time when the Federal Government is failing to act, we have an obligation in Massachusetts to step forward and protect our students and their families.

It’s time for a student loan bill of rights.

Senator Eric P. Lesser is chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.

High-tech manufacturing experiencing renaissance in Western Mass.

In Masslive 2/15/17

There are many reasons for optimism about our region’s economy. Springfield’s skyline is dotted with cranes, and the next two years will see Union Station, the CRRC rail-car plant and the MGM Springfield casino open and come to life. Together, these developments represent billions of dollars in new investment and hundreds of new jobs.

But there is another economic trend worth our attention. It’s more difficult to see because it largely plays out at local, family-owned shops up and down the Pioneer Valley. It’s a renaissance in high-tech manufacturing – and the high-paying jobs that go with it.

Companies like Dielectrics in Chicopee, Meridian Industrial in Holyoke, FloDesign in Wilbraham and Advance Welding in Springfield are using cutting-edge techniques and highly skilled Western Massachusetts workers to make components for medical devices, aircraft engines, wind turbines and sonar systems sold all over the world.

Despite our leadership in this cutting-edge field, our region is not producing enough skilled workers to fill the available jobs. As a result, there are vacancies across Western Massachusetts and thousands more projected in the coming years. This shortage will become even more pronounced once the CRRC railcar plant comes on line.

Failure to address this skills gap is more than a statistic: it’s a threat to our economic future.

Wages in this high-tech field can approach averages of $75,000 a year. Imagine the billions of dollars in lost potential if we allow those positions to go unfilled, denying thousands of families the chance to buy homes, save for retirement and invest in the Western Massachusetts economy.

Eventually, we would do permanent damage to our economy because manufacturers will move somewhere with a steadier supply of skilled workers.

That’s why I spent so much time focused on manufacturing policy last session, as Senate chair of the Legislature’s Manufacturing Caucus.

It’s also why, in the new legislative session, we need to expand and improve our vocational education programs, especially in high-tech manufacturing, and incentivize collaboration between local employers and local educators.

High quality training is especially important given the competitive nature of modern manufacturing. Workers are expected to operate complex, multi-million dollar machines and the computer systems that control them. This requires mathematics and engineering skills, along with the ability to adopt new technologies like 3-D printing.

Luckily, many of our region’s leaders and organizations are preparing the next generation of high-tech workers in innovative ways.

The machine tool technology programs at Chicopee Comprehensive High School and Putnam Vocational-Technical Academy are statewide models.

On a college level, the Smith & Wesson Applications Center at Springfield Technical Community College continues to see record enrollment and placement.

And for those striving to enter the workforce, the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County and the Western Massachusetts chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association run a pilot program for unemployed and under-employed workers, including veterans, an initiative my colleagues and I substantially increased funding for last session.

There are many new initiatives aimed at supporting the Pioneer Valley’s high-tech manufacturing scene.

Valley Venture Mentors, for example, launched a manufacturing accelerator to help local manufacturers get connected to new business opportunities.

Greentown Labs, a clean-energy incubator in Somerville, is opening an office at the Springfield Technical Community College Technology Park in Springfield to connect start-ups in eastern Massachusetts with manufacturing companies here, the fruits of an initiative led by House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Tech Foundry in Springfield is pioneering new workforce training techniques and continues to grow and attract applicants.

These public-private partnerships need more support from Beacon Hill so they can continue to foster a vibrant, high-tech ecosystem in Greater Springfield.
We also need to do a better job marketing the high-tech manufacturing scene in Western Massachusetts and showing young people the type of futures they can have in this fast-paced industry.

Ever since George Washington placed the Armory here, Springfield – and the Pioneer Valley – has had a proud history of making some of the world’s most important and innovative products, from the first monkey-wrench to the first gas-powered automobile, from Rolls Royce cars to the rifles that won World War II.
We have been a high-tech center for centuries. Now, it’s time to recapture that spirit for the next generation.

Last year, I worked with my colleagues to secure funding for a new high-tech manufacturing program at the Lower Pioneer Valley Education Collaborative. The program is a partnership between nine area school districts, local employers and the state. During one of several visits, I met a high-school student who was learning to fashion aluminum for jet engines and other machines. He showed the same pride as my paternal grandfather, who worked as a tool-and-die maker his entire career.

At 18 years old, this young student will graduate and enter a high-tech field with clear pathways for advancement. After a few years, he can use his new skills and networks to open a local shop of his own. The products he makes will be used across the world, in some of the most important and competitive fields, from clean energy to aviation to healthcare. People will rely on his work to grow food, ship goods, fly planes, power cities and do everything else essential to powering our modern economy. And he will do it close to his home and his family, without having to move to Boston or New York or San Francisco, and without taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

As a new year begins, let’s work to make sure we give thousands more people in Western Massachusetts the same opportunity.

State Sen. Eric P. Lesser, D-Longmeadow, is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Manufacturing Caucus and co-chair of the Gateway Cities Caucus. He represents the 1st Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.