Rhode Island has been making things ever since Europeans arrived on the shores of Narragansett Bay. First it was boats, then textiles and finally jewelry. But how the Ocean State has been making those things has changed dramatically through the centuries.
Today the state is straddling its past and its present. So yes, those products that once defined Rhode Island are still being made here. But not nearly as many are being made, all while the path to becoming someone who makes them continues to evolve.
Rich in history
Pawtucket’s Slater Mill, established in the late 1700s, was the first U.S. factory to make cotton yarn using machines powered by water.
Host to the America’s Cup in Newport, Rhode Island is also a state known for its longtime legacy of boat building.
Aviation designer Igor Sikorsky, credited with designing the first helicopter in the late 1930s, first worked on a prototype at Goodwin-Bradley Co. in Providence. Henry Ford also was there as part of his work when building the Model T.
By the 1960s, jewelry was a major commodity coming out of Providence – leading it to being called the Jewelry Capital of the World – peaking somewhere in the late 1970s and dwindling by the mid-1990s as less expensive manufacturers came online overseas.
Today, Rhode Island still manufactures jewelry and other things that sparkle, at Alex and Ani LLC in Cranston, JJ Weston (cufflinks) in Pawtucket and Tiffany & Co. in Cumberland.
Duparquet Copper Cookware of East Greenwich, originally founded in the 1850s, had a modern rebirth after the Great Depression. Hope Global has been making specialty textiles since its founding as Hope Webbing Co. in 1883.
Defense shipbuilding is huge, offered by companies such as North Kingstown’s General Dynamics Electric Boat, as is machine tooling; electronic and electric equipment and components; chemical manufacturing; and the making of rubber, plastics and fabricated metal products.
In 2015, the U.S. government counted 1,363 manufacturing firms in Rhode Island. Together they accounted for $4.6 billion in economic output, 8 percent of the total gross state product. A decade earlier manufacturing generated $5 billion in economic output.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis
Who makes the stuff?
But there is a gap between the past and present, and it has to do with the people who make all that stuff. Truth is, there just aren’t as many people skilled, and it would seem interested, in making things anymore, some of them turned off by outdated ideas about what manufacturing today is about.
“The workplace is changing very dramatically, and skill sets of people need to change dramatically. That’s where companies are having trouble,” said Scott Jensen, director of the R.I. Department of Labor and Training.
The problem is reaching a peak as every day brings more baby boomer retirements, let alone needs that come with expanding businesses. In short, the jobs are there for the taking once applicants gain the correct training.
According to the National Association of Manufacturers, Rhode Island manufacturers employ about 8.5 percent of the state’s workforce. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in the past decade – January 2008 to last January – Rhode Island has gone from 49,800 manufacturing employees to 41,400.
“We need to do a better job of preparing the workforce. We’re not alone, and it’s exciting, because it’s a competition. Whoever is able to innovate and be able to do a good job, the rewards are enormous,” said Jensen.
The need is growing
But a lack of these advanced-skilled workers comes at the same time as industry is seeing growth locally, said Christian Cowan, center director for Polaris MEP, a division of the University of Rhode Island Research Foundation that works with state manufacturers on growth, strategy and operations.
Goodwin-Bradley saw 35 percent growth rates in both 2016 and 2017. Other companies that Cowan works with are seeing extra orders coming in as well.
“They are having trouble meeting demand. And that’s before the labor issue is even addressed,” said Cowan of companies he works with.
Overall economic strength, plus companies such as Electric Boat in North Kingstown being busier – in turn making smaller-parts makers in the state busier – drives activity.
It’s a network of business reliance that makes more manufacturing recruitment even more crucial.
“For every manufacturing job created, there are two ancillary jobs created,” said David Chenevert, executive director of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association. “This is true nationwide,” he said, when companies need more plating, grinding or shipping work done, for example.
And it’s a whole new manufacturing market now, said Chenevert, as companies gradually learn new ways to do business.
Old vs. new
Certain manufacturing industries are headed for what Cowan said could be explosive growth, with the result that some Rhode Island companies have had to completely reassess their business models.
For example, he sees great opportunity on the horizon in the area of carbon composites, which can be used in place of materials such as steel in constructing buildings and manufacturing things such as buses. As the material’s use becomes more widespread, it will mean more business for the companies that make it.
A partnership including Polaris MEP, the Composite Alliance of Rhode Island and the University of Rhode Island is working to address building codes for carbon composites in infrastructure projects, which would help these manufacturers, said Cowan.
Providence-based Goodwin-Bradley uses carbon composite materials in its work making parts for the aerospace industry.
Weight, said Chris Goodwin, vice president and sales director, is likely the biggest benefit in comparing a metal aircraft and one made of composite. “Everything has to balance due to high fuel costs in aviation. The lighter it is, the cheaper it is to fly. And faster.”
And, 104 years since it began, Goodwin-Bradley still serves customers like Sikorsky, doing foundry work. But it has diversified its offerings over the years to include rubber molds, for example.
Goodwin says his company is in an especially tight bind when it comes to the workforce shortage due to the challenging nature of the niche. Complex 3-D surfacing is a volatile area, he said, with no room for error. Jobs can, and do, come to them already behind schedule – for work that is difficult to rush.
For example, normal tolerance at Goodwin-Bradley is about five-thousandths of an inch (a human hair, dissected into three lengthwise, is one-thousandth of an inch thick, he said).
“If we were to get bad material, make a mistake in the CAD or CAM process, the cost of material alone is equal or more than our profit,” he said. “If you get it wrong, you have to eat the job. Then shell out more to redo it.”
An industry in the state that has been especially challenged when it comes to adapting and growing is the textile industry, Cowan said. Far from being able to pick up where it left off in terms of the past days of textile-making, he says it’s a whole new field.
“They’ve been forced to change, and where it’s not a large industry, it’s gotten more and more technical,” Cowan said.
Murdock Webbing Co. of Central Falls, which makes things such as pet restraints and fall restraints as well as highly technical items for the military, is a good example of a textile company making necessary radical adaptations, Cowan said. A newer technological textile company, Propel LLC of Pawtucket, founded in 2006, represents the future of the industry, through its development of technical fabrics and designs that include a submarine damage control suit.
The house policy built
In terms of construction, John Marcantonio, CEO of the Rhode Island Builders Association, sees a bright spot in government leadership in recent years, especially with the General Assembly’s support of a housing-accelerator program similar to MassWorks in the Bay State.
Local regulations, he said, have had density for communities set too low, with 3- and 5-acre zoning, meaning a “massive collapse” in the numbers of units going up. With Rhode Island having some of the nation’s oldest housing stock, units here didn’t compare to other average units. Middle-class homes weren’t being constructed as often as luxury homes, he said. Costs were high.
“Towns view families as liabilities,” he said, himself a former North Smithfield town councilor. “Rhode Island looks at adding school-age children as a financial problem.”
There is much more awareness now about the importance of increasing density to help the economy overall, Marcantonio said.
“From the governor to the speaker to the senate president, we’ve made tremendous strides in helping reduce costs in the industry.”
Like housing subdivisions, not many bridge and road projects have gotten underway here in the not-too-distant past, either, said Jensen, of DLT. “Most other states invested heavily. We didn’t in Rhode Island,” although the RhodeWorks transportation infrastructure program is bringing more projects online every year.
RIMA’s Chenevert said his main wish this year was to see Real Jobs Rhode Island funded, which it was. A program of the DLT, it reverse-engineers the process of finding talent by getting companies’ needs and then customizing training through partnerships.
“It’s how we network together and make the market as efficient as possible,” said Jensen. “There is no more ‘train and pray’ system. I can’t make jobs here at the labor department. But I can help the market provide what a hard-working company needs.”
The average Rhode Island manufacturing compensation in 2016: $70,260 a year.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis
Chenevert calls the program a great way to make young people aware of opportunities in manufacturing, perhaps as an alternate to college. Jensen said there are 17 Career Technical Education, or CTE, programs now in the state, so young people can get certified to work at Electric Boat, for example.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts average Rhode Island manufacturing compensation in 2016 at $70,260 a year. Both Jensen and Chenevert say parents should consider the opportunities manufacturing can offer to their children and discuss it as a potential career.
As far as dealing with the labor shortage now, Goodwin of Goodwin-Bradley and six other manufacturers have forged an alliance on their own, he said. Banding together represents a true sign of progress and change, he said, a stark contrast to earlier days in his family’s company.
“My great-grandfather, grandfather, father’s biggest concerns would be ‘You’re going to grow a competitor,’ ” by partnering, he said, but the group of manufacturers broker work for one another now.
“We are able to take on purchase orders now that would otherwise blow the doors off our businesses or bog down machines forever.”
Rewards from such proactive solutions around the technology and training challenges in manufacturing may be getting more common. NAM reports that 95.1 percent of manufacturers are upbeat about their businesses according to its Manufacturing Outlook Survey – the highest level in 20 years. Now all they need are the people to execute on the work they will gain.
Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.