Speaking Wednesday at Manufacturing and Technology Day at the State Capitol, Catherine Smith, Commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) told Connecticut manufacturers that that manufacturing was a “very important component of our strategic efforts to grow the economy here.”

The DECD chief wants to improve the way the agency does business in order bring more jobs—particularly manufacturing jobs—to Connecticut.

“It is a very high priority for this administration and for me in particular to make sure that we do put our energy and effort behind the manufacturers in the state and continue to look for opportunities to grow,” she said.

She noted that Connecticut’s approximately 5,000 manufacturers provide more than 10% of the employment in Connecticut (the national average is around 9%) and have added 1,000 jobs since the end of the recession, making manufacturing “among the better growth engines that we have in the state.”

[Photo: DECD's Catherine Smith, third from left, makes a point during the Manufacturing & Technology Day meeting with Connecticut manufacturers.]

Also participating as panelists in the event were Bonnie DelConte, President & CEO, CONNSTEP; Kevin Flanagan, director of sales, Flanagan Brothers Inc.; Paul Hoffman, president, Orange Research Inc.; Doug Rose, president, Aero Gear Inc.; and Richard Laurenzi, chair, CBIA Manufacturers Advisory Council and president, Prospect Machine Products.

Small Companies “Heart” of Connecticut Manufacturing

 

Although Connecticut is home to some of the country’s largest manufacturing firms—particularly those working in the defense and aerospace industries—Smith said that small and midsize companies are the “heart” of the state’s manufacturing base.

She argued that pressure on defense spending in the next few of years will make it more difficult for the big defense contractors to “add a lot of growth,” but that small and midsize manufacturers will have the opportunity to grow significantly, “particularly as the economy begins to turn around.”

Talent Shortage

Smith says she had recently spoken to a number of business owners who said that finding the right talent for their companies had become a challenge.

She said that was a “good sign for the industry as a whole,” signifying growth and a desire to expand, but that “one of the things we’re going to want to work on together is how do we get the talent in the state that you need to make sure you have the ability to grow here.”

Ensuring that Connecticut’s educational institutions are providing the kind of talent to support the kind of high-end manufacturing we have in the state, said Smith, is “a subset of all our priorities.”

DECD Priorities

With just weeks on the job so far, Smith quipped that she “had a chance to learn just enough to be dangerous,” but that she’s had enough time to get an “early read” on what the DECD’s priorities are.

She said there are four or five areas that the department will focus on, the first being “to help existing and established businesses in the state get what they need to grow…at a reasonable cost in a reasonable way.”

Smith admitted that in the past, although the DECD has been “helpful when called upon,” it hasn’t been proactive enough in terms of “really getting out in front of the issues and really trying to help you on a much more proactive basis.”

She told audience members that they would see the DECD make much more of an effort to become an “outreach partner.”

Smith cited several other DECD priorities, including:

  • Growing the “innovation side of the state” by making an effort to draw new capital into Connecticut to help high-tech startups and established businesses
  • Ensuring that the department does business in a friendly way and, along with agencies throughout the state, looking for ways to streamline its processes
  • Marketing Connecticut’s strengths more aggressively to attract businesses to the state and promote economic development

Manufacturers Speak Out

Business owners in attendance voiced a number of concerns, including the fact that anti-business legislation, such as the paid sick leave mandate and “captive audience” bill, sends a message to businesses that Connecticut is moving in the wrong direction.

One participant noted that many European manufacturers are setting up operations in more business-friendly states like South Carolina, New Mexico, and Arizona and that the DECD needed to be stronger in terms of attracting that kind of investment to Connecticut.

Smith agreed, citing Connecticut’s leadership position in high-tech, “high-end” manufacturing.  “One of our major ideas is to get out and do much more overseas,” she said.  “We’re really going to get back out there and make sure we’re at the right meetings.”

Another audience member drew applause when he said the only strength Connecticut has left is our knowledge high-precision manufacturing and that if we let Massachusetts and New York do a better job at attracting that kind of work, then “shame on us.” — Bill DeRosa

Bill DeRosa is editor of CBIA News. He can be reached at billderosa@cbia.com.