In EB's shadow, smaller manufacturers tackle skills gap
Despite an effort to train a future manufacturing workforce, small companies like Jaypro Sports in Waterford sometimes have trouble filling openings.
Vice President of Finance Elaine Adams said she gets a lot of job applicants through the Connecticut Department of Labor and has hired some machinists through the advanced manufacturing program at Quinebaug Valley Community College.
But small manufacturers feel like they're operating in the shadow of Electric Boat in Groton, which needs to hire between 15,000 and 20,000 people by 2030 as it gears up to build two Virginia-class submarines a year and develop and design the first Columbia-class subs.
"Most small manufacturers have a tough time competing with EB," Adams said. Jaypro, which makes sports equipment such as football goalposts and bleachers, does not have openings now but finds the spring is a busy hiring time.
The "toughest positions for us to fill are welders, and when EB is making two subs a year, they suck up a lot of welders," Adams said.
Officials at small manufacturers say they are grateful for the support they get from training and educational programs through the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance and local high schools and community colleges.
But EB receives the biggest benefit from many of the programs. Eight out of every 10 graduates of one EWIB program, for instance, get hired by the Groton-based submarine maker.
"Our investment and our partnership with the community colleges and with places like EWIB really does help strengthen the entire manufacturing workforce in the region, which is good for southeastern Connecticut and of course Rhode Island," said Electric Boat spokeswoman Liz Power.
Attracting, training workers
Talk to a person working in local manufacturing and you may hear that it's "not your grandfather's manufacturing" anymore, possibly coupled with an apology for the platitude.
The problem is that most of the grandchildren don't seem to know this.
Kelli Vallieres, CEO of Sound Manufacturing in Old Saybrook and president of the Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance, feels the average person still doesn't have a good understanding of manufacturing.
"We're in the middle of a skills gap," she said, "so when we look at parents of high school students today, they were the products of their parents or aunts and uncles losing their jobs in the '80s, when we had the downfall of manufacturing in Connecticut."
Vallieres added, "When people think about traditional manufacturing, they think about dark, dirty, dingy, dangerous, very manual labor, repetitive jobs. And manufacturing today is clean; it's safe. We have bright environments and we have high-tech machines."
Manufacturers also are up against the pervasive mindset that students need to get a four-year degree from a university or college to get ahead.
"The high schools are very good with students who are ready and want to go to college but maybe not so well-versed with having options for students who are looking for different options," said John Beauregard, president of EWIB.
He feels that many young people are underemployed — not getting the hours or the pay they'd like — but that it's naïve of educators and policymakers to say, "Well, you should change what you do and go to college."
These people are the focus of the Eastern Connecticut Manufacturing Pipeline, a program EWIB offers with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor.
The pipeline offers short-term classroom and online training for skills in welding, carpentry, pipefitting, design/drafting and more. The classroom trainings are typically 5-10 weeks, and many classes run for six and a half hours per day, five days per week.
It has gotten 4,400 applicants in the first five quarters, and there are 500 placements in the program now. The placement rate for people who go through the program is 94 percent, Beauregard said, and about 80 percent of graduates take jobs at Electric Boat.
Other training options include two certificate programs through the two local community colleges. The Quinebaug advanced manufacturing certificate program, which runs from September through May, has classroom and hands-on training that begins after 3 p.m.
The Three Rivers Community College sheet metal fabrication certificate is a 30-hour training program with options to add on advanced certificates in fabricating or welding. Students train in facilities at Three Rivers and at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School.
Local manufacturing employees cite Grasso Tech as a school that has been good about promoting manufacturing, along with Montville High School and Bacon Academy in Colchester.
Mary Fitzgerald, president of Acme Wire Products in Mystic, said a Grasso Tech teacher called her the first day of school to ask about bringing in students for a tour. Acme Wire Products, which has 48 employees, works with the medical, industrial and sporting goods industries to manufacture wire baskets, frames, guards and masks.
She commended EAMA for its annual video challenge, which pairs students from local high schools with area manufacturers. This has included more than a dozen companies each year, such as J Steele Services in Mystic, Freeport-McMoRan in Norwich and Sound Manufacturing in Old Saybrook.
But Fitzgerald has found that, overall, the local schools "don't have any awareness of how important manufacturing is to the area." She said as many times as she knocks on their doors, she keeps hearing they're not interested in partnerships.
Combating the skills gap
Labor data and projections back up Fitzgerald's assertion on the importance of manufacturing to eastern Connecticut.
Across the region, the Connecticut Department of Labor projected 47,000 manufacturing job openings from 2014 to 2024, Beauregard said. Two-thirds of those would replace current employees and the other one-third would be new hires.
According to 2016 program data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, the average annual wage for manufacturing in eastern Connecticut is $83,909 — that's 6 percent higher than the state average.
Area Development Magazine ranked the Norwich-New London metropolitan statistical area No. 4 in the country out of 394 for year-over-year growth from December 2015 to December 2016.
The area ranked No. 17 the year before that and No. 244 three years ago. The report said the area is "enjoying rapid job growth due to a resurgence in manufacturing."
A lot of the job growth is happening at Electric Boat, and feelings from smaller manufacturers toward the submarine maker are mixed.
Fitzgerald feels people are "good at highlighting EB's needs, dot dot dot, and I think that can become difficult because they're the ones that eat the most." But she said Acme Wire Products is doing "pretty good" with finding workers, bringing on a lot of younger people and training them.
Others agree with Power, the EB spokeswoman, that having the submarine maker in the area benefits all manufacturers.
Mike Newhall, director of manufacturing at Davis-Standard, said employees who come to the Pawcatuck company from EB "come with very good skills."
Collins & Jewell co-owner Chris Jewell said his company, which has more than 70 employees, is looking for avenues to be of more service to EB and has identified some specialized welding to do. The Bozrah company provides installation, retrofitting and fabrication services to the manufacturing and processing industries.
Local manufacturing companies say they'll continue to advertise openings, spread the news by word of mouth and work with local training programs.
Newhall said Davis-Standard is "really having a hard time finding" the 10-12 computer numerical control, or CNC, machinists it needs. On the assembly side, the company is looking for workers with mechanical skills, whether they went to automotive school or diesel mechanic school, and workers with electrical skills.
He said the company "is going to become a little more proactive" in working formally with area training programs.
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