by Allison Chisolm

When manufacturers and vendors who serve them want to talk shop to improve operations, find talent, or learn about the latest technology and equipment developments, the Worcester Chamber has a place for them.

Every quarter, several dozen participants gather at the Manufacturing Roundtable for an hour at lunchtime, whether in the Chamber conference room or somewhere off site.

The high attendance numbers aren’t surprising: Massachusetts is home to more than 6,000 manufacturing companies supplying nearly a quarter-million jobs, roughly 7 percent of the state’s job market. According to MassMEP, the median wage in manufacturing is $50,000 and the average compensation is $103,000. Close to 100 Chamber members are in manufacturing-related industries.

Manufacturing is an economic driver that as a sector benefits from some care and attention. Participants in the Roundtable come away from the quarterly meetings with fresh ideas, new resources, and contacts with others who face similar challenges or offer specific solutions.

What’s on Offer at MassMEP?

Last February, Kathie Mahoney, the new president and CEO of MassMEP (Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership), took the group through the range of services her organization can provide for area manufacturers. Her team offers advice on workforce training and funding resources, develops plans to optimize operations, and finds opportunities for innovative growth. As one of many MEPs across the country, MassMEP also helps manufacturers access research from a national consortium of innovation institutes.

Her presentation included a case study for the ’47 Brand (which makes Red Sox hats, among many other products), which had run into production delays as their portfolio rapidly expanded. Company-wide training extended beyond the manufacturing shop floor to change employees’ mindset to focus on company goals. New employees now undergo a week of training, spend at least 30 minutes in each company department, have lunch with the owners and experience check-ins after 30, 60 and 90 days on the job.

Field Trip to QCC

Workforce training to bring new skills into the workplace and educate new employees on the range of skills needed in manufacturing has been a primary focus for many Roundtable members. The group took a field trip to Quinsigamond Community College in May to see firsthand the Quest Center on the main campus and learn about their continuing education services in advanced manufacturing.

QCC staff talked about associate degrees in electronics engineering technology, summer school for robotics, apprenticeship programs, and ongoing collaboration with local high schools, but visitors grew visibly excited to see robots at work, student apprentices learning Computer Numerical Control (CNC) programming, and larger machines available for training sessions with a company’s current employees.

Workforce Development Always a Topic

Finding and training talent in today’s workforce, a persistent challenge for most employers, was the topic for the August meeting. Speakers from the Blackstone Valley Hub for Workforce Development, MassMEP, QCC, and the MassHire North Central Workforce Board offered their perspectives on a variety of approaches. High school graduates facing the dilemma of going on to learn or to earn can do both with programs available in the region from the speakers’ organizations.

Under the headline of “pathways to production,” topics they discussed included identifying non-traditional sources for new hires, including veterans, citizens returning from incarceration, and people with interrupted work histories; creating a pipeline of future hires by establishing relationships with area technical schools and youth work organizations; utilizing temporary worker agencies; and addressing past stereotypes while introducing the idea of a future career path in manufacturing with younger students and their families.

Thinking about Automation

The year wrapped up with Todd Basque of Basque Engineering + Science addressing the “other side of automation” – the planning required before any system is designed, ordered, or installed. Teaming up with Ellen Ellsworth, Director of Innovative Growth Services at MassMEP, they cautioned that only systems currently operated by humans should qualify for automation.

Todd outlined steps that included reviewing the system as it exists, then optimizing it, creating a team that will “own” the automation process, sending them for training on the core systems involved in the automation and best practices for them, establishing an escalation plan among staff to minimize downtime, and securing refresher training from the system manufacturer or the integration company hired to install the new system.

The automation process may reveal unexpected employee interest, Todd said. Be open to cross-training, and look for people with a passion for this work. “People want to learn about robots,” he reminded the group.

The return on investment in automation may take time, Ellen noted, but the impact on staff will allow for more interesting and less repetitive types of work.

The presenting sponsors for the past year of the Roundtable were AIS and FLEXCon, with MassHire Central Manufacturing Consortium as supporting sponsor.

The Chamber wants to continue to address the needs of area manufacturers. If you have a topic you’d like to learn more about or you have a speaker suggestion, contact Alex Guardiola at


Allison Chisolm is a local marketing writer on business and manufacturing. She can be reached at