Automation and other factors continue to reduce employment in the Commonwealth’s manufacturing sector, but not all counties have experienced the same level of decline. While manufacturing employment has been consistently falling since the beginning of this century, it has fallen faster in Hampden County than in other counties in the region. Even though Hampden has been buoyed by Springfield and its metropolitan area, it has still fared worse than the rest of Western MA in this sector.
Compared to the other western counties – Berkshire, Hampshire, and Franklin – Hampden is more industrialized and populated, according to Pioneer Institute’s MassEconomix website. A major reason for this disparity is the region’s rich manufacturing history centered in Springfield. Located in the Connecticut River Valley, this area used to be one of the world’s leading industrial locales from the 1800’s to the 1970’s. American Bosch, Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney, Smith & Wesson, Milton Bradley and many others brought a diverse group of craftsmen into the area, and the Springfield Armory provided weapons manufacturing and innovation for the US military.
Since the 1970s, manufacturing establishments and employment have been on the decline. Even though author Robert Forrant called Springfield “the Silicon Valley of its day,” Bosch and other manufacturing companies pulled out of the area to find cheaper means of production in the South and overseas. For the next 30 years, Springfield saw economic and manufacturing declines, and in 2004, a state control board had to take control of the city’s finances.
Although the state’s hands-on approach to the city has delivered some improvements, Hampden County’s manufacturing sector continues to plummet. According to MassEconomix, Hampden saw a 21.9 percent loss in manufacturing establishments and a 43.7 percent loss in manufacturing employment from 2004 to 2020. These numbers surpass the other counties in western Massachusetts. Statewide, Hampden County ranks second in manufacturing employment loss and third in manufacturing establishment loss.
Hampden lost over 12,000 employees and 190 establishments in the manufacturing sector during that period, but it hasn’t necessarily caused a dip in the county’s economy. According to Labor Analytics, Hampden County’s unemployment rate dropped from 4.6 percent to 2.7 percent from 2007 to 2023, while maintaining a consistent labor force. MassEconomix tells us that Hampden country’s GDP more than doubled from 2001 to 2021, rising from $271,099,000 to $620,913,000. The other western counties all experienced similar GDP growth and falling unemployment, yet they did not have to deal with such a sharp drop in manufacturing.
Springfield and the rest of Hampden County have yet to recapture their former economic status, and there are still chronic problems in the area. Nearly one in four residents live in poverty, and more than half of schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced meals, according to Alan Greenblatt. However, the county’s improvements are illustrated by its ability to pivot towards new industries like healthcare and real estate. This flexibility has allowed Hampden county to move past its manufacturing decline.
About the Author:
Teddy Wynn is a Roger Perry government transparency intern with the Pioneer Institute. He recently graduated from Hamilton College, earning a Bachelor’s degree in World Politics. Feel free to reach out via email, Linkedin, or write a letter to Pioneer’s Office in Boston.