Report: Workforce development key to manufacturing growth

WILSON PEREZ, a craftsman and stonesetter at Tiffany & Co. in Cumberland, demonstrates his jewelry manufacturing work. / PBN PHOTO/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

PROVIDENCE – Wilson Perez was in his element, if not his usual workplace, on Tuesday, with an array of jewelry-making tools in front of him.

Perez, a craftsman and stone setter at the New York-based Tiffany & Co.’s Cumberland manufacturing facility, got his start with the company 24 years ago, originally learning how to polish jewelry.

As time went on, “I worked my way up, learned new skills, and when I got to the diamond portion [I] decided to stop there,” Perez said.

Perez brought his work and tools to Farm Fresh Rhode Island to meet with fellow manufacturers and educate students on his career path at a Manufacturing Month kick-off hosted by Polaris MEP and the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association.

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The event included the release of the organizers’ “State of Rhode Island Manufacturing” report, and visits from about 500 local high school students.

Though manufacturers such as Tiffany were eager to introduce students to a potential career in manufacturing, the purpose wasn’t entirely celebratory: The manufacturers gathered in part to address one of the report’s key recommendations: cultivating the next-generation workforce.

About 65% of the 150-plus companies surveyed reported that availability of skilled labor is their biggest limiting factor in growth, followed by talent development/upskilling and finding new customers.

It’s an issue that stands out for Cumberland-based Swissline Precision LLC, said company President Mike Chenevert.

The company set up a booth “to try to expand the knowledge, show people what is around,” Chenevert said. “You don’t have to go to college all the time. There are a lot of jobs you can do around here.”

The report also highlighted leveraging regional resources and accelerating growth and innovation as two areas the state must prioritize to support manufacturers.

The manufacturing sector represents 9.1% of the state’s GDP, according to the report, at $5.6 billion, and employs almost 40,000 people, or about 8.5% of the workforce.

The bulk of these manufacturers are small businesses, the report found, with 86.5% employing fewer than 50 workers.

Though the workforce’s sector took a hit early in the pandemic, with more than 2,500 jobs lost from Q4 2019 to Q3 of 2020. the industry “surged back,” the report states, with manufacturing representing the second-largest number of all jobs from August 2020 to August 2021.

The state’s top manufacturing-related cluster was boat building and repairing, which represents 5,111 jobs, followed by precious metals, at 2,826 jobs.

Quality of life, proximity to family or heritage and proximity to customers are the top three draws among manufacturers to doing business in Rhode Island, while skilled workforce, access to major markets and proximity to supply chain lagged, in descending order.

But several state policies limit growth, according to respondents, who also identified business-friendly policies as their preferred focus area for Rhode Island lawmakers.

Aside from a shortage of workers with needed skills, manufacturers also feel limited in teaching workers new skills and finding new customers, with some also pointing to increasing business cost from regulations and business taxes.

The state “doesn’t make it easy to do business,” Steve Perry Sr., vice president of Darlington Fabrics, said in the report. “But our proximity allows us to help each other. We have access to our legislators and a great support network.”

About 60% of respondents plan to increase wages and salaries in 2022, and about half plan to raise prices. Automation and employee training are also by about 40% of manufacturers, according to the report.

Jacquelyn Voghel is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at

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