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OpinionEditorial

Spotlight on manufacturing

A historic highway road sign outside the former

A historic highway road sign outside the former Grumman Corp. plant in Bethpage, N.Y. as seen on Nov. 11, 2014. Grumman manufactured aircraft used during the Cold War and also made the Lunar Module that landed men on the moon in 1969. Credit: AP/Frank Eltman

It's easy to think Long Island is no longer the land of manufacturing. 

With the end of high-profile companies like Grumman Corp., and the growth of other key sectors like health care and finance, the Island is no longer as directly and publicly associated with the manufacturing industry as it once was.

Nonetheless, it's still a critical part of the Island's economy — and its future is intrinsically tied to the region's success.

Nassau and Suffolk counties play host to about 3,000 manufacturers and about 70,000 jobs, according to a recent study from the Workforce Development Institute commissioned by a regional manufacturing task force. Perhaps most important, the study found that industry has thousands of open jobs and boasts a relatively high average salary, at $83,358 — critical in a high-cost area like Long Island.

At the same time, however, the industry suffers from a perception problem. It lacks the advocacy that regional business groups bring to other areas of the economy, like real estate development and finance, and unlike the building trades it lacks the support system and educational pipeline to assure that young, skilled workers will be ready to fill the thousands of job openings that exist even now.

Those jobs aren't the widget-making jobs of decades ago. Today, local manufacturers are utilizing robotics and artificial intelligence. Today, they're innovators and engineers. One company on the Island makes and exports tortellini to foreign nations, another makes military-style aircraft seats for military and commercial customers. Going forward, the local manufacturing industry plans  to expand its base to include support for offshore wind projects.

To fill the needs, Long Island's community colleges and BOCES facilities have to develop the right certification and professional development programs. They will need to connect with the region's manufacturers to make sure their students' skills meet the companies' requirements. There are models in other parts of the state where successful apprenticeship programs are bridging the gap between student and employee. Additional workforce training, internships and even high school field trips would help both young workers and the companies that hope to employ them, by exposing potential future employees to the opportunities Long Island's manufacturers offer.

But both educators and industry leaders need support. Some advocates have suggested Long Island needs its own region-wide manufacturing association or organization. That might be unnecessary in an area where there are already plenty of business groups, and smaller, more specific industrial organizations, especially if the existing organizations expand their reach to highlight and work with the manufacturing sector. 

Forty years ago, nearly 20% of the Island's workers were employed in manufacturing. That number is now down to 5%, but with the right strategy and spotlight, Long Island has the chance to create more jobs in new industries that can represent the region's future, as much as its past.

— The editorial board

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