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A stitch in time

AS CHIEF operating officer of a clothing manufacturer in Massachusetts, I am constantly asked why we maintain a US manufacturing facility. Certainly, overseas manufacturing offers many attractive incentives to companies such as mine, including cheaper labor costs and significant tax incentives. So, why do we continue to manufacture in the United States?

Simple -- it comes down to quality and pride. Our Massachusetts workers are the finest manufacturing employees in the world. They stitch each garment with the pride of knowing that their craftsmanship will be on display in some of the finest fashion retailers in the world. And while there were more than 4,000 workers making men's apparel in New Bedford less than 15 years ago, there are fewer than 500 today.

Unfortunately, as much as we continue to promote the advantages of doing business in Massachusetts, the climate for manufacturers here has not gotten easier over the past decade. According to the Massachusetts Division of Unemployment Assistance job vacancy survey, employers have 59,861 job vacancies unfilled; 84 percent of these vacancies require a high school diploma or higher, and 40 percent require an associate's degree or higher. In fact, almost a third of Massachusetts's workers, 1.1 million, lack the basic skills needed for jobs in the new economy, as documented by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, or MassINC. Fully 746,000 people lack high school diplomas, and 152,000 more lack strong enough English to make them employable.

Even as our political and civic leaders endeavor to recruit new businesses, Massachusetts was the only state to lose residents in 2004; more troubling, half of the out-migrants have a bachelor's degree or higher. According to a recent public opinion poll by the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts on behalf of the nonprofit organization Citizens Housing and Planning Association, 46 percent of Bay State residents reported that they or an immediate family member were considering leaving the state amid skyrocketing home and condo values.

As a businessperson, I know that we need to act now to avert a growing crisis. Under the current conditions, new businesses cannot succeed in Massachusetts, and workers have no opportunity to increase wages or move up a career ladder. Without decisive action, more businesses will expand elsewhere or relocate altogether, and the lack of adequately trained and educated workers will thwart efforts to recruit businesses and new jobs to the state. The foundation of our economy is the quality of our workforce. Addressing this crisis demands a substantial investment in our workers.

One good start would be passing The Workforce Solutions Act of 2005. This bill, which was filed with the support of 101 legislators, is a comprehensive set of budget and legislative proposals to expand lifelong learning opportunities for Massachusetts workers, students, and the unemployed or underemployed. This bill would support regional businesses by increasing the competitiveness of Massachusetts companies and improving worker education, skills, and employment options. It would bolster workforce partnerships in healthcare and other industry growth sectors with employers, community colleges, training providers, and unions. This initiative would help keep my company competitive and here in Massachusetts.

To ensure that the public gets the best return on its investment and to improve the effectiveness of current programs, the bill proposes clear lines of accountability and performance measures for the Massachusetts workforce development system. Massachusetts would implement a comprehensive review of the workforce system through a multistakeholder task force, a partnership of the Legislature, the state administration, business, labor, community organizations, and stakeholders.

The Workforce Solutions Group helped to develop this legislation after extensive outreach to workers, labor, the business community, and community-based organizations throughout the Commonwealth. Feedback was also received at eight regional forums across the state that attracted more than 700 people who offered their comments and ideas. The problem is clear. Together we must address it.

Anthony Sapienza is chief operating officer of the Joseph Abboud Manufacturing Co. in New Bedford and chairman of the Greater New Bedford Workforce Investment Board.

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