In mill cities like Lowell, Lawrence, and Fall River, the work was textiles and the workers were low-skilled. That left their pay so meager that they needed their kids’ wages to keep their families afloat. In contrast, Springfield became “the City of Homes,” grand Victorian mansions for the well-to-do but, more important, huge tracts of single-family homes for the average — but highly skilled — workers.
Other industries, from automotive to aerospace, came to the region precisely because of all that skilled labor and those networks of manufacturers and suppliers. Rolls-Royce chose Springfield as the home for its American operation (and would have stayed longer had it not been for the Depression).
Skilled labor is one of the reasons so many gun manufacturers stayed even when other industries left for cheaper labor. But the region lost its beehive when the Pentagon shut down the armory in 1968 and turned over the Army’s gun making fully to the private sector. Yet that loose network of small manufacturers and suppliers remained, and it’s now benefiting greatly from the latest gun boom.
Bob Forrant worked as a machinist in Springfield before returning to school in the early 1990s. He’s now a UMass Lowell professor of history and regional economic development. He says that if these small companies in the valley are smart, they’ll use the surge in gun business to branch out into other advanced manufacturing work.
That’s exactly what’s happening at a company in Greenfield called VSS. In the early 1990s, when Steve Capshaw was studying political science at Boston College, his family’s company was stuck in the past. It was a dirty shop where workers did mind-numbing manual-labor machine work making the steel marking tools used to stamp brand names onto hand tools. Basically, they were waiting with dread for their jobs to disappear. The company did only about $500,000 in annual sales. When Capshaw took over the company, he bet big on the future, bringing in CNC machines and skilled workers to be able to handle advanced manufacturing jobs for the firearms and aerospace industries. Four years ago, VSS was doing only a few thousand dollars in business for Savage. In 2013, his immaculate shop is on pace to do $3 million with Savage alone. Capshaw, who is 41, says his customer base breaks down to 30 percent from Savage; 10 percent from other gun makers (mainly Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Co. in New Hampshire); 30 percent from aerospace; and 30 percent from the old marking tool business. He expects VSS to do between $9 million and $10 million in business in 2013.
What’s more, he says he’s leaving a lot of money on the table because he can’t find enough skilled workers to hire, the result of the region’s long disinvestment in vocational and technical training. “I have an 18-year-old just out of technical high school making $55,000 a year,” Capshaw says. “A 27-year-old making $90,000.” He now has more than 40 employees and says the vast majority of them own their own homes. He provides full medical coverage — no deductible — and a full 401(k) match. Yet he’s pretty much stopped advertising job openings because there are so few qualified applicants.
Over the summer, he interviewed three recent liberal arts grads from UMass Amherst, one who had $45,000 in college debt. “They were great kids,” Capshaw says, “but I couldn’t touch them because they had zero discernible skills.” He’d be willing to train them, he says, but his workers need to have IT skills and be mechanically inclined. A generation or two ago, even many liberal arts kids learned about engines by messing around under the hood of their cars. But that doesn’t happen anymore. So we have the crazy situation of runaway college debt, a persistently high unemployment rate, and a bunch of well-paying jobs with nobody qualified to fill them.
Why is the gun business in particular doing so well? Capshaw says the fears around President Obama are only part of the answer. A big driver is how automation and other technological innovations have dramatically lowered the costs of making guns. When labor is a smaller piece of the cost structure, that allows companies in high-cost places like Massachusetts to be more competitive with cheap-labor areas. That leads to more “reshoring,” producing items locally that used to be made overseas. That also allows gun makers to sell their products at much lower price points, which encourages existing gun owners and collectors to buy more of them.
A huge part of Savage’s growth, for instance, has come from the Axis rifle line it introduced three years ago, carefully engineered to be low-cost without sacrificing accuracy. (With Savage price points that run as high as $2,500, marketing director Bill Dermody calls the roughly $300 Axis their “gateway drug.”) And when more of the gun parts are made locally, that allows companies to quicken the pace at which they design and roll out new products, which also gives gun owners additional reasons to buy more. Savage specializes in producing guns in a host of styles and calibers for a long list of niche markets — right down to lefthanded women who hunt bears — and producing them profitably. On top of all these industry trends, Capshaw says, Savage has shown a lot of savvy in picking up market share when its competitors suffer missteps. “That,” he says, “is how they went from a company that was almost bankrupt to the number one maker of sports rifles.”Continued...