Help Wanted: Connecticut Manufacturers Looking to Expand, Hire
By Lesia Winiarskyj
Marion Manufacturing’s newest apprentice, 19-year-old Hannah Lenoce, just finished the Advanced Manufacturing Program at Naugatuck Valley Community College (NVCC). The program earned her 600 apprenticeship hours toward the required 8,000 to become a nationally certified tool and die maker.
“She’s a superstar,” says Douglas Johnson, vice president of operations at the Cheshire-based manufacturer, who had been trying to recruit her for the last three years. At 16, Lenoce: who earned good grades but was disengaged from the classroom environment: dropped out of school. She eventually earned her G.E.D. and supported herself with a 60-hour-a-week job at a car wash.
“A lot of us at the plant went to that car wash. We would see Hannah running around the cars faster than anybody else. She was always ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir.’ She had those soft skills and that work ethic that everyone’s looking for.”
Johnson asked her to consider coming to work for Marion Manufacturing, which was only two minutes up the road and would offer her a better long-term opportunity. Eventually, that’s where Lenoce landed.
“More young people, including women, should consider careers in manufacturing,” she says, noting that Marion Manufacturing is woman-owned. “There are so many different options to choose from. You can design and engineer the tooling, make the parts, do the quality inspection. I like the math and all the hands-on work that goes into making parts.”
“Hannah’s in our apprenticeship program, and I’ve assigned a mentor for her,” says Johnson. “I gave her the number-one person I had in my facility, my most valuable person, and I said, ‘You’re responsible for her.’ That’s how important this is.”
‘You Have to Have the Right People’
Given the projected growth trajectory of Connecticut manufacturing, finding superstars like Hannah is important for the entire sector.
Thanks in part to a $400 million agreement to allow United Technologies Corp. to use R&D tax credits it earned, UTC subsidiary Pratt & Whitney will upgrade and expand its Connecticut headquarters, producing as many jet engines in the next three years as it has in the past quarter-century.
The East Hartford manufacturer already has 5,500 orders for its PurePower series engine and expects that number to grow.
“Pratt is growing like crazy,” said the company’s senior vice president of engineering and operations, Danny
Di Perna, in his keynote address at CBIA’s 2014 manufacturing summit.
All of this comes as good news not only for Pratt but also its network of suppliers throughout the state, plus the hundreds of companies that support them, and the thousands of Connecticut workers they employ.
The jet engine maker is outsourcing 80% of its aerospace components manufacturing, sending $10 billion down the supply chain starting in 2015 and creating an unprecedented ramp-up in business for smaller Connecticut manufacturers. The state has also approved a
$25 million assistance package that will help manufacturers add equipment and employees, not only to meet the anticipated demand from Pratt but also to compete in a global economy.
“With this kind of demand, which is expected to double in the next 10 years, plus a trend toward onshoring and the potential for abundant, low-cost natural gas to power the industry and lower its energy costs,” says CBIA economist Pete Gioia, “Connecticut manufacturing: the single largest contributor to gross state product: is ripe for significant expansion.”
But, he says, there’s a catch.
Doing business in a high-cost state means Connecticut suppliers have to outperform their lower-cost competitors elsewhere: in areas like quality, reliability, turnaround time, and value.
“To win work,” says Gioia, “you have to invest in technology, and you have to have the right people.”
According to CBIA’s 2014 Survey of Connecticut Manufacturing Workforce Needs, however, the right people are in short supply.
Not Ready for Prime Time
Among the businesses surveyed, the greatest barrier to expanding their capabilities in advanced manufacturing technology is not cost or lack of time, but lack of talent. A shortage of manufacturing employees with the right skills, a steep learning curve, and an overall lack of in-house expertise are the biggest hurdles.
“We’re ready to produce,” says Pratt’s
Di Perna. “But some in the supply chain are not ready.”
In a stunning turnaround from only three years ago, 85% of Connecticut manufacturers surveyed expect to add full-time employees by the end of 2015: a significant jump from 2011, when fewer than one in three manufacturers surveyed (30%) planned to make full-time hires. Based on these projections and other survey data, Gioia estimates 9,300 openings across 14 job categories among manufacturing companies statewide by the end of 2015.
“Clearly, at a time when the economy and manufacturing are growing, the need to talk about workforce is ever-present,” says Judith Resnick, executive director of CBIA’s Education Foundation. “Historically Connecticut’s manufacturing base has had some real peaks and valleys. But I think we’re on an entirely different trajectory now, and today’s advanced manufacturers need access to a large enough talent pool that has the types of competencies in demand.”
And that’s where manufacturers are facing one of their biggest struggles.
“When I saw the survey, it really resonated with me,” says TRUMPF Training Center Manager Christine Benz, citing one of the report’s key findings: By and large, the toughest manufacturing job candidates to find are tool and die makers. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most difficult job to fill, nearly two-thirds of manufacturers surveyed (66%) rated tool and die makers a 5. Also rated at 5 were CNC programmers (half of manufacturers) and CAD/CAM technicians (38%).
“These are exactly the areas where TRUMPF has the biggest challenge filling positions,” says Benz.
She characterizes these jobs as falling into the “middle-skill area,” where workers need more than a high school diploma but not necessarily a four-year degree. Finding suitable candidates is problematic already, she says, adding that by some estimates, a 17.5% increase in demand for middle-skill jobs is expected by 2020.
Indeed, rising wages in China, overseas shipping costs, and the demand for higher-quality parts and quicker turnaround are shifting more production to the U.S. That includes the manufacturing of sophisticated dies and molds for aerospace, defense, and medical devices; advanced vehicle and appliance-making; and energy-efficent heating, cooling, and refrigeration equipment.
The National Tool & Machining Association estimates that 80% of the nation’s 5,800 tool and die companies: small businesses with an average of 30 employees: are already looking to hire one to five workers. (Tool and die makers create single, custom-designed parts that are then used to produce hundreds of thousands of components.) The ideal candidates for these jobs demonstrate good judgment and precision, proficiency in math and science, and skill working with their hands.
Yet relatively few American job seekers are training or applying for jobs in manufacturing.
An ‘Identity Crisis’
While the contemporary manufacturing environment is clean and high-tech, negative and outdated perceptions about the manufacturing workplace and earning potential persist. Widely held beliefs about manufacturing as a dying industry aren’t easy to shake.
“We have an identity crisis,” says Johnson, who is a former president of the Smaller Manufacturers Association (SMA). “Everybody still assumes that manufacturing is dark, dirty, dingy, and dangerous. Many people have a grandfather or an uncle who’s been laid off and lost a good-paying job. But that’s not the world that we live in today.”
To prove his point, he and other SMA members invite people into their facilities.
“We’ve opened up our plants and are asking young people, college-age people, people who are middle-aged and not sure what they want to do to come in and look around. We are not what manufacturing used to be.”
Describing a recent student-parent tour hosted at a Waterbury plant, Johnson said, “The reaction of the parents was incredible.”
Growing up, many of these parents witnessed the decline of manufacturing: boom and bust cycles with the inevitable furloughs, layoffs, and plant closures. For them, manufacturing was either a noisy, hazardous work site or an abandoned factory on the auction block.
“They had no idea how much it’s changed. And when parents start to see it differently, you begin to build the momentum you need to get young people interested.”
Reaching more parents, students, and school guidance counselors is critical, says Resnick. Outreach needs to extend beyond Connecticut’s technical high schools and into traditional high schools, where students often aren’t hearing about the opportunities in manufacturing.
‘We’ve Kicked the Can Down the Road’
“In North America, we look across the pond with envy,” says TRUMPF’s Christine Benz, noting that a system of two-year apprenticeships in Europe: where German manufacturer TRUMPF has several production facilities: strengthens the manufacturing workforce pipeline.
“Over there, companies are provided with a vast resource,” she says, describing a centuries-old system in which students divide their time between vocational schools and employers, “bypassing college and college debt while getting a first-class education,” as well as a paycheck, and in most cases, a guaranteed full-time job.
Benz, who completed such a program in her native Germany, says, “The apprenticeship system is not something we ‘ramp up’ in Europe. It’s been in place for hundreds of years. Also, there’s a difference in how people perceive apprenticeship programs. Here in the U.S., I feel it’s seen as a second-rate education: If you can, you go to college or university; if you can’t, then you go through an apprenticeship program. It’s totally different in Germany. Apprenticeships are highly valued, and young people are attracted to these programs. Here in the U.S., perceptions have to change. Manufacturing is not dirty anymore, and apprenticeship programs are highly valuable. They can get you into very well-paying jobs.”
Johnson recalls an opportunity three years ago to bid on a job and bring back work that had been outsourced to China. For him, having apprentices in place was key.
“A client in the cabling industry was looking for a better way to manufacture a foreign-made part: a continuity washer: and they wanted it produced in the U.S.”
Marion had 22 employees, four of whom were 65-year-old tool and die makers on the verge of retiring.
“When you have that high a percentage of your employees aging out, you need a strategy, and we didn’t have a strategy,” says Johnson. “We had to build it on the fly if we wanted to cash in on this opportunity. So we made some quick decisions. We reached out to the technical high schools, to CBIA, to workforce organizations, and NVCC, and we were able to bring in two technical high school students: a senior and a junior: as an apprentice and pre-apprentice.”
The bid was ultimately successful. Marion was able to produce the part for a fraction of a penny less than its Chinese competitor.
“When we won that job back,” says Johnson, “it was a huge accomplishment for us. We increased our business by 25%.”
But, he admits, it was a close call.
“We pulled it off because we had already started filling the pipeline with young talent, reengineering talent that we had, and looking at what else we were going to do. Many smaller shops aren’t prepared to take on the kind of work headed our way. It can take eight to ten years of apprenticeship work and experience for someone to replace a retiring tool and die maker, and yet a lot of manufacturers halted their apprenticeships as business slowed down or dried up. When it comes to investing in Connecticut’s manufacturing workforce, we’ve kicked the can down the road too many times.”
New Incentive for Apprenticeships
One new development that could strengthen the talent pipeline over time, says Gioia, is the state legislature’s expansion of the apprenticeship tax credit program beyond C-corporations. S-corporations and other pass-through entities, such as Marion Manufacturing, are now able to use credits to reduce their tax liability.
“This was a priority for CBIA at the Capitol,” says Gioia. “When we surveyed manufacturers in March and April, only 30%: fewer than a third: said they planned to develop or expand apprenticeship programs to replace retiring workers. But that was before the General Assembly voted to extend the apprenticeship tax credit. My hope is that if we surveyed them today, a greater percentage of Connecticut manufacturers would tell us apprenticeships are part of their plan.”
(To see if you qualify for the Department of Labor’s apprenticeship program or to get help structuring a successful program, click here or call 860.263.6087.)
Like NVCC, many of the state’s community colleges offer well-defined pathways into high-skill, in-demand manufacturing jobs. Curricula are developed with significant input from employers, and an emphasis on advanced manufacturing ensures that students enter the workforce with experience in contemporary equipment and technologies.
Dr. Karen Wosczyna-Birch is executive director of the Connecticut College of Technology’s Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing, a National Science Foundation Center of Excellence.
“Along with aviation industry demands,” she says, “additive manufacturing is on the verge of exploding, moving from prototyping to production, so investments in both the technology and the training to use it are critical. Where we see higher education as playing a key role is in building skill sets beyond entry-level production: the CNC programmers, the engineers, the technicians that need higher-level skills.”
The Connecticut College of Technology enables students at any of the state’s 12 community colleges to earn stackable credentials, worth 15-20 credits, that not only prepare them to get jobs where they can hit the ground running but also give them a head start on completing their associate degree. In many cases, new hires continue working toward their degrees, and their employers foot the bill. (Indeed, nearly two-thirds of the Connecticut manufacturers we surveyed: 65%: provide tuition reimbursement.) The programs can also provide a seamless pathway to a four-year degree in engineering or engineering technology.
“Having a skilled manufacturing workforce is essential to the economic growth and stability of the state,” says Birch. “The key to creating the 21st century workforce is establishing partnerships where industry identifies the skills needed for next generation manufacturing, and higher education is responsive in developing those competencies and credentials.”
Resnick agrees. “We’re starting to make good progress in developing a pipeline of entry-level manufacturing employees. We need to make similar strides at the next level. If Connecticut’s manufacturers are to remain competitive, we need to address the shortage of middle-skill candidates and those with four-year degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math.”
The 2014 Survey of Connecticut Manufacturing Workforce Needs was produced by CBIA in partnership with UIL Holdings Corporation and the Connecticut Colleges’ College of Technology’s Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing. The questionnaire was emailed to manufacturing executives and HR directors in March/April 2014. Read the full report.
Lesia Winiarskyj is a writer on economic and workforce issues at CBIA. Contact her at email@example.com.
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