BOSTON–State Senator Eric Lesser gave his maiden Senate speech yesterday evening, successfully securing passage of a budget amendment to fund the Massachusetts Precision Manufacturing Pilot Program, which provides skills training to unemployed and underemployed adults, including veterans, across Massachusetts.
In his speech, Lesser called the Pioneer Valley “a manufacturing hub for 10 generations,” but said the region has had to reshape its legacy to keep pace with rapid shifts in advanced manufacturing practices and international markets.
“One of the most important challenges we must face is to address the gap between the jobs that are being created in our economy, and the people who are looking for work,” Lesser said. “That’s what this amendment does.”
The budget amendment increases the appropriation by $500,000 to $1,445,000, part of which will be used to fund the continued operation of the program in Hampden County.
“Western Massachusetts has been left out of the red-hot economy in the eastern part of the state,” Lesser said. “But there is a path to reinvest in the middle class–and that’s to marry up our traditional history as a manufacturing center with the intellectual firepower of schools and training centers all across our state.”
Lesser, who is Senate Chair of the Joint Legislative Manufacturing Caucus, recently hosted a delegation of Senate members at EASTEC, a convention of over 500 manufacturing companies in the Northeast, at the Big E grounds in West Springfield. He also recently published an op-ed on the widening manufacturing skills gap in Massachusetts, especially in the Pioneer Valley.
Lesser received a standing ovation from the Senate members upon conclusion of his maiden speech. The amendment passed with unanimous support and will be part of the Senate’s FY16 budget.
Mr. President, I rise in support of amendment 328, a manufacturing pilot program. This amendment would allow $1.5 million to train workers—both the underemployed and the unemployed—including many veterans. This is a statewide program that has unique importance in the Greater Springfield area where a training program has been set up and operating for the last year and is already over-enrolled.
Mr. President, just as you do, I come from the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, the crossroads of New England, a strategic location in between Albany and Boston, and in between the Vermont border and New York, along the banks of the Connecticut River, where George Washington placed the armory during the Revolutionary War.
Ever since that armory was placed in Springfield, we have been a manufacturing center. We invented the American system of manufacturing—precision parts, components, come from the Pioneer Valley. We have also been one of the great engines of innovation, not only for New England, but for the entire country.
Some of our most iconic companies and products come from the Pioneer Valley. Just a few examples: Duryea Brothers, the very first automobile, manufactured in Springfield; Rolls Royce, American manufacturing was done in Springfield; Indian Motorcycles; Milton Bradley; Westinghouse; American Bosch–all done in Hampden County, in the Lower Pioneer Valley.
This legacy of advanced manufacturing continues in our area. High-tech manufacturing, solar panels, the components of wind turbines, batteries, advanced parts that leverage technology and know-how–all come from the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.
Now, this has not only been an engine of great products and innovation—it has been our ticket to the middle class. The average salary in this industry can approach $75,000 a year, with real job security. People can buy homes, they can save for college, they can invest in their future in this industry through these jobs, by making things.
Perhaps most importantly, that proud tradition that goes back to George Washington extends ten generations. Many of the families in our area teach their children the trade—they hand it down from one generation to the next. Most of our manufacturers are small businesses run and operated by families, handed down from father to son, father to daughter, mother to daughter, grandchildren, on and on.
This is also an industry and a style of economy that has allowed the broader community to prosper. We’re the birthplace of basketball. We built six world-class museums. The biggest symphony hall in New England outside of Boston all came to the Springfield area, fueled by the growth and the ingenuity of a middle-class-oriented manufacturing center.
But unfortunately, as the story played out in so many other parts of our Commonwealth and our country, that industry also came under decline. The region fell on hard times, jobs moved overseas. And I would argue that as that industry declined, something else was lost. As we lost the ability to invest in trades, as we lost the ability to invest in a craft, to make things, the middle class suffered as well. And we were left out of the red-hot economy that developed in the eastern part of the state.
But there is a vision for the future. There is a path to reinvest in this industry, and through that to reinvest in the middle class—the bedrock of what so many of us stand for, so many of us fought for and campaigned for.
And that’s to marry up our traditional history as a manufacturing center with the intellectual firepower of our schools and our training centers, and the know-how we have all over this state. Right now in the Pioneer Valley there is a renaissance in the advanced manufacturing field, making sonar equipment, airplane components, wind turbines, all the things that fuel the modern economy, that make Massachusetts a leader for the country, can be made in Western Massachusetts and in the Commonwealth as a whole.
In fact right now, it is projected that over the next 10 years, there will be 44,000 vacancies in the advanced manufacturing field. Let’s think about that—44,000 vacant positions in a field that pays average salaries of around $75,000 a year. Imagine the wasted potential if we don’t take this on. Imagine the families that won’t be able to put a kid through college, buy a home, invest in their futures, if we don’t take this on.
And so I would argue that one of the most fundamental things that we as a body must take up, one of the most important challenges we have to face, is to address this skills gap, is to address the gap between the jobs that are being created in our economy and the people looking for work, not only in Hampden County and in Berkshire County and in Hampshire County and the Pioneer Valley, but in all of Massachusetts as well.
Mr. President, I understand that there are many challenges before us. We have seen over 900 amendments and counting. All the challenges that confront this body. But as was so eloquently stated on the first day of our session, shared prosperity is our goal. And I would argue that so many of the challenges we face–public safety, education, growing poverty–are connected to this fundamental challenge, which is a middle class that is increasingly squeezed, and an economy that increasingly serves the top and forgets the middle.
And so I would just finally close with this: I understand how many demands there are for funds, how many demands there are for costs. It is a tough budget and it’s a tough time. It always is. But we can’t afford not to do this, we can’t afford not to make these decisions, to make these investments. Because here’s the challenge, here’s what we all face as legislators. In an economy where a 19-year-old can become a billionaire by inventing an iPhone app, how do we create an economy that works for everybody else? How do we create an economy that continues to give equal opportunity, that continues to allow people to pass it down to the next generation?
We have to restore balance. We have to invest in our middle class.
Now, Amendment 328 is a modest proposal. It’s $1.5 million in a $39 billion budget. But it is nonetheless a proposal. And although it’s incremental, although it might not seem like a lot, for the hundreds of people that will benefit from this training, it is a lot, it’s the world to them, it’s the world to their families. So I humbly ask in my first address before you that you consider amendment 328. Mr. President, and through you to the members, I ask for your support of this amendment.
Because although it’s just a start, it is a start, and we know what the path is to shared prosperity—the path is investing in our middle class. And that can only happen if we give people the skills and the education to make it on their own.
I thank the Chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee for her support and her counseling through this process. I thank the President and I thank my colleagues for welcoming me to the Senate.
I humbly ask for a recording of the yeas and nays.
[Members and guests stood and applauded the Senator’s maiden speech. The time was 5:27 p.m.]