Investment in sub manufacturing training needed to fend off competition, senators say

The forward hull section of a new Virginia-class, fast-attack submarine sits on the waterfront at General Dynamics Electric Boat on Dec. 7, 2012, after its arrival.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
The forward hull section of a new Virginia-class, fast-attack submarine sits on the waterfront at General Dynamics Electric Boat on Dec. 7, 2012, after its arrival. (Tim Cook/The Day)

State Sens. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and Heather Somers, R-Groton, are urging support for a bill that would provide $10 million in state funding over the next five years to train advanced manufacturing workers for Electric Boat and other employers across the state. They say the proposal will send a message to the Navy and other states competing for submarine contracts that Connecticut supports its submarine industry.

"The Navy needs to know, if Electric Boat is granted these contracts, that they are able to fulfill the contracts by having a skilled workforce," Somers said Tuesday, testifying in support of Senate Bill 444 at a hearing of the Commerce Committee.

Somers and Formica asked the commerce committee, of which Formica is a member, to raise the bill, which in addition to the $10 million for training programs, would create an innovation hub for plastics manufacturing in an unused 1,000-square-foot lab at Three Rivers Community College, and require the head of the Department of Community and Economic Development to assess the capital needs of the submarine industry every three years.

The $10 million would sustain the Eastern CT Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative developed by the Eastern Workforce Investment Board and the state's technical schools and community colleges to meet the workforce needs of EB and other manufacturers due to an uptick in submarine construction, and expand it to other parts of the state.

More than 5,600 people have applied to participate in the training pipeline, which now offers curriculums in seven different trade areas. Students are vetted through American Job Centers and spend between 10 and 12 weeks in intensive no-cost training programs, which run five days a week for six to seven hours a day. More than 90 percent of students, or more than 900, who have gone through the program have received job offers immediately upon graduating, according to John Beauregard, executive director of EWIB.

The training is catered to the needs of employers, which have helped develop the curriculums and design the classrooms. "That employer engagement is the 'secret sauce' to why the program has been successful," Beauregard said.

While most of the students have gone on to work at EB, 137 different employers have hired from the program, according to Beauregard. Maura Dunn, vice president of human resources for EB, submitted written testimony in support of the bill, noting the company has hired 750 people from the pipeline and that those who have gone through the program "are better prepared for success."

Graduates receive an additional 20 to 30 weeks of on-the-job training once at EB, which spends more than $40 million annually on training, according to Somers.

The pipeline initiative was started two years ago with funding from the federal government, which runs out this year. Formica and Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, worked to secure $1.5 million in the biennial state budget passed Oct. 31 to sustain the program. In fiscal year 2018, $500,000 was allotted and $1 million was slated for fiscal year 2019, but the governor's recent budget proposal cuts that down to $500,000.

Senate Bill 444 would reverse that cut and provide funding to keep the program solvent and expand it to include other workforce investment boards, Formica said, noting that there are smaller suppliers and vendors throughout the state that also need a trained workforce.

Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, a member of the commerce committee, questioned the need for the state to support a privately traded company like EB. Since 1997, Connecticut has provided about $42 million to EB in the form of grants and other subsidies, according to the corporate watchdog group Good Jobs First.

"Twenty-five years ago, I don't think the government stepped up and did these things. Why should we be funding this?" Fishbein asked.

Somers offered the example of Virginia, which has developed and funded a technology center next to Newport News Shipbuilding, which with EB builds fast attack submarines, "so that's what we're dealing with," she said. The state also has made capital investments in the shipyard.

Beauregard said the "vast majority" of the investment in the program benefits the students. "It changes people from either an unemployed or underemployed situation to now be operating at a full-time job with benefits, so the impact there to Connecticut's economy is they start to spend some money, they start to spin off other jobs and they are now operating at full potential, full productivity and full earning power," he said.

Sen. Osten has introduced legislation similar to what Formica and Somers are pushing. Osten's bill, Senate Bill 3, also would provide funding for training programs, but also proposes funding for infrastructure projects at EB's Groton shipyard.

j.bergman@theday.com

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