State’s Manufacturing Ecosystem Offers Competitive Edge
Collaboration and partnerships are strengthening the state’s manufacturing ecosystem, which is fast becoming one of the biggest advantages for running a business in Connecticut.
The report, produced by CBIA, CONNSTEP, and ReadyCT in collaboration with RSM LLP, was released at the conference, which drew over 220 manufacturing stakeholders from across the state.
The discussion was moderated by RSM senior manager Kendra Blacksher and featured Burke Aerospace president Brittany Isherwood, Allnex site manager Frank DiCristina, and Nuovo Pasta Productions executive vice president and COO Tom Quinn.
All four agreed agreed that as the manufacturing landscape undergoes rapid change, companies that adapt will prevail.
Isherwood said in the past two years alone, Burke Aerospace pivoted from the commercial market, to military, and back to commercial and electric vehicle manufacturing.
“It’s really being nimble and agile, with a sense of figuring out what the customer needs are,” she told an audience of more than 220 people at the Oakdale Theater.
“And that’s going to all change. I think that’s going to change in our industry pretty much every single year.”
As Quinn put it: “People that can adapt and evolve will survive.”
Changing Playing Field
Quinn explained that all companies benefit when they work together and share information.
“I think partnerships are a big deal,” he said. “I think it’s important, and we learn to broaden our perspectives and open our minds quite a bit, to rethink what we thought we knew, because the playing field has really changed.”
DiCristina said a flexible workforce was also critical to a company’s success.
When the automobile industry quickly ramped up after being shut down by the pandemic, Allnex flexed its workforce to meet the immediate burst in demand.
“It’s going to be more critical,” he said, “and I don’t think markets and the general economy are going to be as steady and predictable as in the past.
“And if you want to survive through that, you’ve got to have that capability to move quickly.”
Supply Chain Disruptions
The report shows a staggering 93% of manufacturers were impacted by supply chain disruptions in 2022, with 11% citing supply chain bottlenecks as the biggest factor driving their losses.
Seventy-one percent of respondents reported issues with product availability, with an additional 19% citing higher costs and 6% the loss of business or revenues.
DiCristina expects continued volatility.
“I honestly think it’s not getting better,” said. “It seems to be getting more challenging.”
He added that changing suppliers is a difficult process in the chemical sector as products have specific qualities, and cannot simply be swapped out.
“Changing your suppliers is not a quick and easy thing,” he said.
Quinn encouraged manufacturers to begin buying materials now to supply customers months down the line.
“Unfortunately just-in-time inventory is not in time anymore,” he said. “At some point, you have to be bold.
“If we’re going to be able to supply this person three or four months from now, we’re going to have to import this stuff now, or bring this stuff in from somewhere now, or order this machinery, and just have the confidence that we’ll be able to use it when we need it.
“Because trying to get it when you need it now—that’s still not a thing.”
Blacksher asked about a paradox in Connecticut’s manufacturing sector: 93% of the industry jobs lost in March and April 2020 due to pandemic shutdowns have been recovered.
Yet 87% of surveyed manufacturers report difficulty finding and/or retaining employees, with 44% saying the lack of skilled applicants is the greatest obstacle to growth.
And a shrinking labor force, plus 114,000 job openings in the state—with an estimated 11,000 of those in manufacturing—makes a difficult situation even more challenging.
So what steps are these manufacturing leaders taking to attract and retain workers?
Isherwood said one obstacle was the prerequisites for employees, such as having five to 10 years of experience.
In response, Burke Aerospace has lowered the requirements and enhanced their training.
“Taking away the barriers has been really successful for us,” Isherwood said.
“Opening our eyes to other folks out there that come into manufacturing that don’t have the prototypical background has been key for us.”
Quinn said Nuovo Pasta raised their minimum wage to $15 an hour in May 2021.
He said by matching—or exceeding—the salary from competitors, “it checked one of the decision boxes off for a potential employee.”
Quinn said showing employees you care by providing generous benefits, or even remembering their name and acknowledging their efforts, goes a long way.
Isherwood also said she challenges herself everyday to fix the workforce shortage in Connecticut.
“Workforce is our number one problem in the state. What am I actually doing as a leader, today, to impact that every single day?
“It needs to be a priority as a leader, to make sure you have a pulse on your organization.”
Twenty-two percent of surveyed manufacturers said employee retention was their greatest investment—the highest of any category.
DiCristina said communication, transparency and “helping the workforce understand why we’re doing what we’re doing” is key to attracting and retaining employees.
When Allnex staff was working overtime to meet a rapid increase in demand, DiCristina said that “transparency really helped make them feel engaged and truly part of the team, as opposed to ‘they’re just taking orders’ or ‘this is what we’re doing just because we’re going to do it.’”
Isherwood also highlighted a process at Burke Aerospace called “stop, start, keep,” where employees anonymously discuss what processes they want to stop, which they want to start, and which they want to keep.
“Making sure that your employees are being heard in a way that they feel comfortable—because most folks don’t want to say it to your face, and it’s easier if they write it down without their name attached to it,” she said.
“But then also making sure that you follow up with the group, just knowing that all concerns are being addressed.”
‘Lean by Default’
Burke Aerospace has successfully leveraged partnerships with organizations like CBIA, affiliate CONNSTEP, and the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology.
For example, Isherwood said, the use of additive manufacturing cut project times from three to four months to one to two weeks.
DiCristina said supply chain disruptions force many companies to work “lean by default.”
He reiterated that having a flexible and adaptable workforce was critical to keeping up with market changes.
Quinn said the pandemic made Nuovo Pasta evaluate “the right balance between people, machinery, and technology.”
He agreed with DiCristina that, in the current environment, “it’s lean by default. It’s lean if you’re going to survive, adapt, and evolve.”
The conversation closed on how to provide career pathways for employees.
Isherwood said Burke Aerospace created a career pathway program for their employees and provides them the opportunity to change their role and responsibilities.
“Making sure that they feel supported in the sense of what education do they need?” she said.
“What type of roles do they need? And making sure that they feel that they can spend their career life with our company and still feel like they’re excelling.”
DiCristina said Allnex had six individuals in the last ten years that started as interns and were now supervisors or managers.
“Developing your own talent is key in the world we live in now,” he said.
Quinn said his company had three tiers for each position to provide a pathway for employees.
“People want to know what they can do,” he said. “People want to know where they can go.
“It’s one of those tasks you’re never done with. We fight the good fight of culture everyday.”
The 2022 Made in Connecticut: Manufacturing Summit was produced by CBIA, CONNSTEP, and ReadyCT and made possible through the generous support of TD Bank, with additional support from RSM and Grant Thornton.
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