Osten proposes investing $150 million in state aid to help EB

Hartford — With the federal government poised to spend more on the military, state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, says Connecticut needs to do what it can to support its defense contractors like Electric Boat.

Ahead of the 2018 General Assembly session, which is set to begin on Feb. 7, Osten has filed legislation that proposes investing $150 million in state aid over 10 years for job training and infrastructure needs at EB.

Of that, $100 million would go toward supporting infrastructure projects at EB over the next five years, and $50 million would be spent on workforce training programs over the 10 years.

With the uptick in submarine construction, EB has been on a hiring spree with plans to hire between 15,000 and 20,000 new employees by 2030.

As part of its growth, EB has made major investments in workforce development — about $40 million in gritting — and infrastructure — the company plans to spend about $1.5 billion on facility improvements in Groton and Quonset Point, including the Columbia facility.

EB spokeswoman Liz Power said the company and the state have long enjoyed a positive relationship, which is expected to continue, “given the tremendous opportunities for growth here, and the excitement about our future.”

But the company is struggling to find enough qualified workers.

The Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board has teamed up with technical schools and community colleges to develop programs to train workers in skills like welding and pipefitting, and EB has restarted its dormant apprenticeship program.

"In order for General Dynamics (EB's parent company) to continue to be a lucrative company, they have to prove to the Navy that Connecticut is interested in making sure they have a trained workforce to do those jobs," Osten said.

Osten recently met with EB President Jeff Geiger and Vice President of Human Resources Maura Dunn, who indicated that more money for training programs would be helpful, as would funding to support the build out of a new construction facility where a new class of submarines will be assembled.

EB is the prime contractor for the Columbia-class submarine program, a fleet of 12 new ballistic missile submarines that will replace the current fleet of so-called "boomers," which were built in the 1980s and 1990s. The company plans to build a large assembly building on the south end of its Groton campus to support the Columbia program. EB also is expected to stay busy building two or more Virginia-class attack submarines a year.

Connecticut's defense industry has remained one of the only bright spots in an otherwise lackluster economy. The state lost another 3,500 jobs in November with the Norwich-New London-Westerly labor market losing 1,100. And Comptroller Kevin Lembo is estimating the state's deficit to be $224 million in 2018.

When asked about the state's fiscal position, Osten said, "Even in bad times we need to support good jobs and support workers in Connecticut, especially eastern Connecticut."

The state has supported its other big defense contractors, Pratt & Whitney and Stratford-based Sikorsky, with "significant dollars to make sure those defense industries are able to compete, and this is the same thing," she added.

Osten has started to reach out to her colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, to see who is willing to work with her on the proposal. She is planning a meeting with lawmakers at the end of this month after Geiger, EB's president, delivers his annual update on the company.

The 2018 session is set to end on May 9, and traditionally only bills that have a budgetary impact are taken up during a shorter session.

j.bergman@theday.com

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