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March 5, 2012 Newsworthy

The national spotlight shines on revived manufacturing

Photo/Tim Greenway Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine, says work force is key to growing manufacturing in Maine

Manufacturing has been getting a lot of national attention since President Obama's State of the Union address where he spoke of insourcing and establishing tax policies to reward domestic companies that keep their operations and jobs here. That focus got additional attention last month with the release of a Brookings Institution report emphasizing the need for innovation, work force development and access to financing to support precision, aerospace, chemical and other manufacturing.

Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine, is glad manufacturing is finally getting some positive ink. For the past 12 years, she's been beating the drum about how adaptive and resilient Maine manufacturers are.

She points to momentum among Maine's precision manufacturers, and those who make composites and advanced textiles, as indications that manufacturing is still a strong sector of Maine's economy. To underscore her point, she mentions a jobs survey sent to the association's 120 members in late December. Forty companies responded saying they had a combined 230 immediate openings.

“And we represent only about a third of Maine's manufacturing community, so I think I can say with some confidence that manufacturing is growing,” she says.

Mainebiz recently chatted with Martin; the following is an edited transcript.

Mainebiz: There are various tax proposals to support U.S. manufacturers under debate in Washington. Do you think tax breaks make a difference in a manufacturer's decision to relocate or expand?

Martin: For the most part, yes. What figures into the company's decision depends greatly on availability of a skilled work force and certainly the business climate in which to conduct business. Taxes, regulations, university and community college systems that can educate and train workers, good local schools and communities are all leading factors. Do awarding tax credits help? I believe it does for mostly large employers but for small business, such as in Maine, it's not a leading factor.

What kind of tax policy helps Maine manufacturers?

The issues that are most on the minds of Maine's companies are access to a skilled work force; marketing Maine as a place where high-tech manufacturing occurs; and [lowering] electricity costs. Most said having lower taxes is important in running their businesses, but not a high priority. [In general], the fewer regulations the state imposes, the more companies will grow.

Are companies talking about the attention trained on manufacturing? What is the reaction?

Yes, Maine companies are talking about it in various sectors. For example, the high-performance textile sector stands to gain a great deal if the U.S. turns to onshoring. If the military and commercial industries continue to keep proprietary products here in the U.S., more small shops will thrive. The growth in new energy, medical devices and aerospace will keep U.S. companies making products in the U.S. Maine has shares in those markets and we continue to build clusters and sectors to capture more.

You've been saying for years that manufacturing in Maine is not dead. Any validation there for you?

Personally, I've always seen that manufacturing is alive, although it has changed. Today's shops are diverse and producing niche products. [The challenge] is finding the highly skilled work force. The disconnect between education and skills is a very lively topic; [our association] has provided a model to address it. n

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