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Berkshire's Manufacturing Sector Wants To Attract A Skilled Workforce

Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal toured a sterile manufacturing plant in Lee on Tuesday, whose owners made a plea for state help in attracting skilled workers to the region. 

What Shawn Kinney and Andrea Wagner do can only be described as a niche science. Their company, Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing, specializes in making small-scale injectable drugs for clinical trials in a clean-room insulator.

It looks like a nuclear laboratory out of the movies, but these workers are dressed from head to toe in sterilized smocks, rubber gloves and plant-based fabrics to protect their product from contamination.

“That’s where we do all of our sterile drug manufacturing,” Kinney says.

Kinney led a tour for Congressman Richard Neal at Berkshire Sterile Manufacturing alongside fellow Democrats State Senator Adam Hinds and Representative Smitty Pignatelli.

Hinds says advanced manufacturing in the region is booming.

“It captures that sweet spot of location because it’s near the innovation in the eastern end of the state, it’s affordable in terms of the business itself, the cost of living for the workforce development and so it speaks to really getting right this continuation of the life sciences investment of the commonwealth as well, the continuation of basically $100 million a year,” Hinds says.

Kinney says a cluster of companies are settling in the region and finding domestic clients, especially from Boston, as well as international clients.

“They like the fact they can drive 2 hours and get to their manufacturing facility instead of flying to California or over to Europe to get it manufactured there,” Kinney says.

Wagner says some companies that want to partner with them and move into the region need access to capital, perhaps from the state, to get off the ground.

“They’re out in the middle of nowhere like Oklahoma, so why can’t they be in the Berkshires,” Wagner says. “I mean, my God, that all of the people in Boston are using them.”

Speaking during a recent visit to Boyd Technologies, Pignatelli said Boyd could easily hire 15 more employees. Neal says General Dynamics in Pittsfield could hire 100 more.

Berkshire Sterile, which formed three years ago and employs roughly 50, is expected to add more employees in the coming weeks. Kinney says it could hire another 10 if there was a larger pool of skilled workers in the region to choose from.

“The challenges that we have experienced are finding the right people that we need, the skill set that we need, and what we find is for a lot of the advanced skill sets we have to move people into the environment,” Kinney says.

Congressman Neal agrees.

“There is a skill set gap,” Neal says. “There are right now in America 6 million technology jobs that go unanswered. Here in New England 20,000 precision manufacturing jobs in the smallest geographic area of the country go unanswered.”

Under a grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative, Berkshire Sterile accepts interns from colleges in the state. Many new hires are right out of school.

Kinney suggests the state create an incentive program to attract skilled labor to the Berkshires. Kinney says right now, the company pays up to 40 percent of a new hire’s salary on recruiter fees.

“If we had some way that Massachusetts could help locate those people for us so we don’t pay those high recruiter fees, and also we pay moving expenses to move them here – that’s another area where assistance could be quite helpful from the state,” Kinney says. “We don’t mind paying salaries that would be competitive for what’s down in New Jersey, but we also have to look at paying a recruiter fee and we are paying a moving expense for that person.”

Neal says the state wants to expand manufacturing, research and development, as well as vocational training. He wants to set up a meeting between industry heads and workforce development and education leaders to come up with a plan to create and attract a skilled workforce.

“Aligning people with the job opportunities that exist should be, I think, a role that government has some space to play in,” Neal says.

Berkshire Sterile hopes to double in size next year.

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