As The Economy Drags, Green Shoots Hint At Growth In Mass.

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Around this time every year, Northeastern University political economist Barry Bluestone offers-up a widely-read assessment of the housing market and the economy as a whole in Greater Boston. In 2008, it was pretty scary.

This year's report is due out in a couple of weeks and it indicates several green shoots. Unemployment in Massachusetts has leveled out, beating national averages, largely due to growth in higher education and medical sectors. One surprise: tremendous growth potentional in manufacturing.

“Here in Massachusetts, we’ve really in much of our manufacturing made a transformation to true 21st century advanced manufacturing. Sixty percent of the more than 700 firms we talked with actually expected to add jobs between now and 2017,” Bluestone said.

Old Style Manufacturing In The 21st Century

Bluestone highlighted companies that seemed like old style manufacturers, but are doing sophisticated things: such as Boston AccuRounds and Centerless, a maker of precision metal components for applications with extremely low tolerances like medical devices and defense.

“The commonwealth has gotten more and more business-friendly as of the last several years," said President and CEO Michael Tamasi, explaining why he has not outsourced the jobs as many other manufacturers have done. "There’s workforce training fund grants, there’s industrial development bonds that have helped us build our building in Woburn 10 years ago."

The firm has seen a dramatic up-tick in orders since August. The 60 or so workers at their Avon plant are starting to work overtime again. In the long run, Tamasi said he's confident about the firm's growth potential.

Biotech, Green Tech To See Upswings

In other sectors, there is still a lot of excitement around green tech and biotech, according to Bluestone. One example is Acceleron Pharma in Cambridge, where scientists have isolated a protein with incredible potential.

“This molecule, when given to mice, in three days their lean body mass and their skeletal muscle increase by about 10 percent, and over the course of a month it can increase as much as 40 percent muscle mass,” said Jasbir Seehra, the chief scientific officer. His research is aimed at developing treatments for neuromuscular diseases, particularly Duchenne’s — a severe form of muscular dystrophy.

Keeping Jobs Close To Home

Acceleron has added about 40 research and development positions this year and are still based in greater Boston. A big question is whether companies like Acceleron will stay in the area once they progress beyond the research and development stage and move into commercial production.

"Well, for these industries it's always good to have a well-trained labor force. Relative to other states, we are pretty good at that," Bluestone said. "On the other hand we have very high cost housing, particularly here in eastern Massachusetts."

Bluestone also pointed out the higher energy costs in Massachusetts and red tape might prompt companies to set-up production operations elsewhere — like North Carolina or India — after their big ideas translate into products for the market.

Click "Listen Now" to hear WBUR's Bob Oakes and Adam Ragusea discuss the report.

This program aired on October 9, 2009.

Adam Ragusea Reporter/Associate Producer
Adam Ragusea was formerly a reporter and producer for WBUR.



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