When Colin Cooper delayed his retirement as an aerospace executive to step into the role as Connecticut’s first chief manufacturing officer, his immediate goal was helping manufacturers tackle workforce development challenges.
The arrival of a global pandemic months into the job not only shifted his focus, but exacerbated those workforce issues.
“There wasn’t a playbook to pull off the shelf,” Cooper said.
“I went from a position where I was gathering information, and trying to set an agenda looking forward for a couple years, to a role where it was really sort of reactive."
Appointed chief manufacturing officer by Gov. Ned Lamont in October of 2019, Cooper strove to be a champion for manufacturing.
It was through his leadership and collaboration among manufacturers across the state, that led Lamont to deem all manufacturers in Connecticut to be essential, keeping their shop floors operating at the height of the pandemic.
Cooper said the actions of the business community were nothing short of heroic.
“There was a tremendous amount of sharing ideas, and best practices and shamelessly adopting other company’s policies and procedures,” he said.
During his time, Cooper facilitated more than partnerships related to COVID-19 policies and procedures.
“Colin Cooper fostered an unprecedented level of collaboration between the public and private sectors during his time as chief manufacturing officer,” CBIA president and CEO Chris DiPentima noted.
“His leadership through the pandemic and as chair of the Manufacturing Innovation Advisory Board has led to the development of initiatives that will help the state’s manufacturing sector prosper.”
Cooper believes his time chairing the board will have the a profound impact.
“We developed half a dozen new initiatives that collectively I think are really going to move the needle for our manufacturing sector,” Cooper said.
From digital transformation plans, to a manufacturing-focused internship programs, and giving manufacturers access to the smart industry readiness index, Cooper believes that renewed focus will drive sector growth.
CONNSTEP president and CEO Beatriz Gutierrez said Cooper’s energy and experience helped drive his advocacy efforts.
“His commitment to help develop relevant programs in support of our companies facilitated needed resources in these difficult times, and has gone a long way to setting a strong foundation for continued success,” she said.
ReadyCT executive Shannon Marimón added her appreciation for Cooper's efforts to engage the K-12 public education system.
"Colin brought a wide lens to his role, thinking about not just short-term workforce development solutions but also long-range planning," she said.
"The impact of his work will be felt now and into the future, particularly among high school graduates who elect to go directly into the workforce and the manufacturers in need of that talent."
'Quenches Your Thirst'
Cooper’s visits to manufacturers around the state gave him a new appreciation of the sector, giving him access to both the state’s most well-known, and least publicized operations.
“It quenches your thirst, but it is a bit overwhelming at times,” Cooper said.
The aerospace junkie was easily excited watching the creation of jet engines, but was equally impressed by the movement and drive inside the Kleenex and Schick razor facilities.
That enthusiasm is what he believes needs to be passed to the next generation of workers.
“Manufacturing isn’t what people picture it from a generation or two ago,” Cooper said.
“Not only is the environment in these bright, clean, well-organized, well-lit facilities, full of millions of dollars of computerized equipment, but they empower their workers, they’re looking for workers’ input on how better to run the business and to focus continuous improvement.”
Cooper said accessing underutilized talent pools, and giving them access to opportunities within manufacturing is critical in combating workforce issues.
He noted that the strategic plan developed by the Governor’s Workforce Council has strong, actionable initiatives.
He feels as more manufacturing leaders get involved in the workforce pipeline efforts, the more success they will see.
“You can’t run the old pass patterns," Cooper said. "You have to get engaged with the schools, the educators, and parents.
Despite stepping down from his role and into retirement, Cooper knows he can’t stay away from the manufacturing world entirely.
He’ll remain on a number of boards to continue his efforts.
As for Cooper's advice for his successor Paul Lavoie, it comes down to one word: relationships.
“This is very much a relationship position,” he said. “You have to rely on the other agencies and their resources to get things done.”