Manufacturing: An old idea is new again

On April 12, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

graney_web(1)By Mimi Graney

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

While Somerville never achieved the scale of industrial development that cities like Lowell, Lawrence and Waltham did, for a century and a half, its economic base was manufacturing.  In the nineteenth century, Somerville boasted major employers in meat packing, glass production, and brickmaking. In the twentieth century, printing and food production grew in prominence, two clusters that continue on a more modest scale today.  These manufacturers provided living wages for workers at a variety of skills levels, helping to establish Somerville as a community of diverse classes and enabling many people to live and work in the city.

But the 60s and 70s, a period of decline for Somerville and most urban communities, saw the loss of active industrial uses and a shift towards the service sector, which required lower skills and provided lower compensation.

In recent years Somerville’s seen the start of an economic renaissance, buoyed by the growth of the creative class, with new businesses and new investment. The creative class comprises highly skilled and highly paid workers, with a Boston metro average salary of $84,403 per year.

Just who is this “creative class?” The term, coined by economist Richard Florida, refers to a broader cohort than those working directly in the arts.  “Creative class” speaks to two main groups: the “super-creative,” whose work requires both creativity and innovation such as design, engineering, science and technology, and creative professionals, who are knowledge workers in areas such as law, healthcare, business and finance.

This economic renewal, however, has yet to improve the prospects for Somerville’s less skilled workers who remain primarily in the low-wage service sector, earning an annual wage that is just 40% of the average creative class salary. Their positions in retail, food service, and administration generally involve routine tasks, providing few opportunities for skill development, advancement and increased wages.

But this need not be a tale of two Somervilles. With support, our city’s creative industry sector can be leveraged to advance the job prospects for Somerville’s less skilled workers.  The key is a new twist on manufacturing.

Invigorating Somerville’s manufacturing sector isn’t a case of reviving the dead.  While it’s not like the heyday of the early twentieth century, manufacturing still employs nearly ten percent of the state’s workforce and ranks fourth behind health care, retail and education.

Today in Somerville more than 6o manufacturers are in operation, from model builders to guitar makers, chocolate companies to commercial bakeries. The prospects for the sector look promising as analysts predict significant national growth among small-scale, high tech manufacturers, and there’s a growing trend of small, urban manufacturing, particularly of artisan and customized goods.

For our community’s lower skilled workers manufacturing provides relatively higher wages than their current positions in the service sector. Manufacturing jobs pay 26 percent above the state average.

As explained by researcher Anne Emig, “The average manufacturing wage in Somerville is $52,104 – nearly $30,000 more than the average wage in Somerville’s hotel and food industry and over $25,000 more than its retail sector. However, 32 percent of Somerville residents work in hotel, restaurant, retail and other service industries as compared to six percent in manufacturing – a significant opportunity to move residents to higher wage professions.”

The kind of manufacturing I propose fits with the Somerville of today. With limited areas for development, it’s impossible that Somerville will ever again see large-scale industrial uses like the former Ford plant at Assembly Square. And today’s manufacturing isn’t the high polluting uses of yester year. Somerville’s new growth in manufacturing would ideally be an expansion of the work already taking place here, including prototype building, food manufacturing, printing, and artisan goods.

Such an expansion of our manufacturing sector would be valuable not just for the economic diversity among our city’s workforce. It would serve to root creative economy businesses in Somerville.  Creative industry is primarily based on the intellectual capital of its workers, who are highly mobile.  Unfavorable market, political or cultural shifts could make Somerville vulnerable to losing the sector.  Linking the creative economy and manufacturing sectors would help to tether these businesses to our city and make for less volatility overall.

An increase in local jobs is long overdue. Somerville’s employment per capita is just .27, well behind Boston at 1.06, Cambridge at .92, Waltham at .91 and Newton at .57. Even Belmont, no bastion of industry, beats out Somerville at .29. This means Somerville residents are commuting out of the community to work, and we receive no economic boost in our commercial districts from daytime workers.

Advancing manufacturing in Somerville will need some help from both the private and the public sector.

Keep Somerville Gritty. While they’re far from glamorous, the old, simple, sometimes ramshackle industrial properties in Somerville provide the low-cost space that the creative and manufacturing sector needs to thrive.

Urban activist Jane Jacobs explained, “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically linked to those that can support the high costs of construction…. (F)or really new ideas of any kind, there is no leeway for such chancy error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”

The cost of space is the driving factor in the location decisions across all sectors of Somerville’s creative economy, making affordability essential if the city to maintain these businesses.

Build the Somerville brand. The Somerville Arts Council’s International Food Market Tours and their book, Nibble, did a great job highlighting these businesses. Taza Chocolate has proved that it’s not just Willie Wonka who can attract visitors through a candy factory. Promotion of Somerville’s manufacturers through a media campaign, tours and joint marketing will help to both grow customers for these businesses and attract others to establish similar businesses here.

Let’s play the game we can win. Union Square isn’t Kendall Square and shouldn’t strive to be. While there’s lessons to be learned from elsewhere, let’s not get caught up too much with what other cities are doing. Manufacturing might not feel sexy but it leverages our community’s unique strengths and employs four times more people than biotech. Somerville’s got a distinctive mix: small-scale commercial building stock, density, demographics, a collaborative business culture.  Let’s leverage what we’ve got to fulfill our unique potential.

As we strive to maintain the economic diversity of Somerville, keeping housing affordable for our city’s low and moderate income households is only part of the equation.  Increasing wages and moving our residents out of poverty is the other. Manufacturing just might be the ticket.

This article relied upon the following sources:

“Class-Divided Cities: Boston Edition” by Richard Florida in the March 2013 issue of Atlantic Cities

 “The Future of Manufacturing in Somerville” by Anne Emig, MIT master’s degree thesis published June 2011

“Economic Trends Technical Report” presented by the City of Somerville’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, presented June 2009.


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