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Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce

Charles Conteh: Engaging the next frontier of manufacturing in Niagara

From the economic decimation of cataclysmic plant closures, layoffs and a massive spike in poverty some 20 years ago, Niagara has moved to seeing positive trends in manufacturing in recent years.

Employment in the region’s manufacturing sector has increased 13 per cent over the past six years (2012-18). Sector-wide, manufacturing employment increased by 2,075 jobs during the same period.

There are more than 17,000 people employed in the manufacturing sector consisting of more than 600 businesses, making it the largest slice of the region’s economic pie, worth $2.17 billion.

The manufacturing upswing is not a temporary glitch but is grounded in a growth trend that reflects a diverse range of emerging knowledge-intensive and innovation-driven sectors such as transportation equipment, fabricated metal products, food and beverage, machinery and furniture and the like. As of 2016, there were 243 manufacturing firms in Niagara that exported goods they produced to one or more continents. The value of goods exported by all Niagara manufacturers in 2016 was approximately $3.7 billion, of which $3.6 billion was exported across North America.

Without a doubt, the emerging trends in Niagara’s manufacturing attest to the region’s growing competitiveness and resilience in the face of rapid transitions in technologies, markets and economic shocks over the past three decades. However, for the region to engage the next frontier of sustainable economic growth and job creation, there are a few things worth considering.

First, manufacturing’s resurgence is not a purely local affair. The region`s manufacturing sector is entangled in a complex web of supply chains that spans a vast industrial corridor well beyond Niagara. This means that Niagara needs to align its industrial strategy more closely with those of neighbouring economic clusters in Hamilton, the GTA and the Buffalo region.

Call it a “mega-cluster” strategy. For a region the size of Niagara, mega-clusters provide strategic opportunities for the region to pool its assets with neighbouring regions to carve a sizable and sustainable niche in the turbulent landscape of the global economy.

Second, as the region embraces opportunities and challenges of a knowledge-based economy, making the transition to a vibrant industrial innovation hub would be incomplete without ratcheting up current efforts at skills training and upgrades for the local labour market. Brock University and Niagara College have been making impressive strides in this direction.

A case in point is Brock’s recent decision to partner with Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce and south Niagara chambers of commerce on a survey to better understand how the talent and skills capacity of the region lines up with the needs of employers. Building on these strategic initiatives will help Niagara guard against the “ghosts-without-feet” syndrome that affects other regions, whereby a small fraction of the labour force makes a decent living in a few highly celebrated industries while a large number of workers are stuck in the dark alleys and low-road trap of precarious and low-wage jobs. Escaping this vortex of economic precarity and marginalization requires a tailored investment in specialized and concerted skills training and internship programs that synchronize the efforts of post-secondary institutions, the private sector and government.

The third and final point is a need to give serious thought to the role of institutional intermediaries to serve as the concierge of Niagara`s manufacturing sector.

Niagara currently has no legitimate platform that facilitates the industrial strategies of its multiple jurisdictions. The best way to enable knowledge-generation and synergies to stimulate and foster innovation and economic growth is through the creation of networking structures of key stakeholder groups. This allows for successful interactions between a broad range of economic actors — including governments, business associations, post-secondary institutions and not-for-profit organizations.

An ‘innovation broker’ platform is critical to begin, facilitate and sustain this process. This innovation intermediary can be the crucial tool to enable knowledge-creation activities and the sharing and exploitation of knowledge for innovation synergies and economic growth.

Without this facilitator to bring the often-fragmented regional stakeholders together in the ‘big tent,’ the potential synergies for the genesis and assimilation of innovation and its transformation into economic growth and job creation may never be realized.

Charles Conteh is an associate professor of public policy and management in the department of political science at Brock University.

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