How desperate are Connecticut manufacturers for skilled workers?

Consider Wepco Plastics in Middlefield, where company president Dave Parmelee has taken to inviting local elementary and middle school students to tour his plant with the hopes of sparking their interest in engineering and manufacturing.

Worker shortage: manufacturers testify at state Capitol
Key issue: Phoenix Manufacturing's Martha Prou and Wepco Plastics' Dave Parmelee address the legislature's Manufacturing Caucus.

Or Schwerdtle Technologies of Bridgeport, which recently hired back a 76-year-old retiree for the express purpose of training younger employees.

Those and other CBIA members came to the state Capitol Feb. 21 to share their priorities with members of the legislature's Manufacturing Caucus.

To a person, the manufacturers told lawmakers they need trained employees.

"The one thing I want to stress right now is the shortage of skilled workers," said Kathy Saint, president of Schwerdtle, a 139-year-old company.

Technical High School Funding

Cyndi Zoldy of the Smaller Manufacturers Association told the caucus the machining program at Kaynor Technical High School in Waterbury currently has one full-time teacher and one long-term substitute.

It's simply not enough, she said.

"We strongly oppose any cuts to the technical high school programs," Zoldy said.

"I understand there's dire straits with our budget, but cutting technical schools slows the pipeline that goes into apprenticeships, which goes into manufacturing jobs, particularly small manufacturing.

"We must get these students the educators they need."

CBIA worked in the last legislative session to pass bills that strengthen the workforce pipeline and make it easier for skilled manufacturers to teach at technical high schools.

More needs to be done.

'Flood the Market'

Saint said that, at best, Connecticut's technical high schools and advanced manufacturing programs can provide about 800 trained workers each year.

"When we're talking about Pratt & Whitney hiring 8,000 workers, and Electric Boat hiring 10,000...what we really need is to flood the market with qualified candidates.

"We have some good systems that are in place here in Connecticut, however they really need to be scaled up."

Martha Prou of Enfield's Phoenix Manufacturing agreed.

We have some good systems in place here, however they really need to be scaled up.
— Schwerdtle Technologies' Kathy Saint
"Workforce development is pretty much a key issue—finding people, training them, and keeping them," said Prou, whose family business started in a small shop and moved last year to a 114,000-square-foot facility.

Parmelee, of Wepco Plastics, said his company has taken the reins to introduce manufacturing to the next generation.

"As manufacturers, it's our responsibility to get the word out there, so we do a lot with elementary and middle schools, to bring children in to our facility and show them what it's all about," he said.

Drive Student Interest

Parmelee recalled that when he was in the Haddam-Killingworth public school system, he was introduced in seventh grade to woodworking, metal working, drafting, and other skills that piqued his interest in engineering and manufacturing.

He asked why similar programs are no longer offered in public schools.

"We have to get these kids interested [in manufacturing] early," he said. "If we don't, we're going to have a hard time going forward as manufacturers."

Caucus co-chair Sen. Joan Hartley (D-Waterbury) said the bipartisan group would work hard, noting that suggestions the caucus received during its brief tenure influenced the passage of several pro-manufacturing bills.

"We know the budget crisis is driven by the lack of sufficient revenue," said Sen. Len Suzio (R-Meriden). "But rather than raise taxes, we need economic activity.

"We have to reclaim Connecticut's glorious manufacturing history. But it won't happen overnight. It's going to take a lot of hard work."

'Keep Speaking Out'

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D-Westport) urged manufacturers to continue speaking out.

"The more stories we can hear of your successes and obstacles, the better we're able to tailor government's role to meet the needs of manufacturing," he said.

Sen. Steve Cassano (D-Manchester) said the caucus will do everything it can to help manufacturers, but cannot do it alone.

Cassano questioned why no one from the state Board of Education or the community colleges was at the meeting.

If we don't do this as a team effort, we're going to trip and fall and fail.
— State Sen. Steve Cassano
"The legislature can't do this by itself. They all should be here. We're talking over 30,000 new manufacturing jobs," he said.

"If we don't do this as a team effort, we're going to trip and fall and fail."

"It's incumbent on us to listen but to also have the coordination between your skills set and community colleges, and to introduce this work to students as early as middle school to get that appetite to do the work," said Rep. David Yaccarino (R-North Haven).


For more information, contact CBIA's Eric Brown (860.944.8792 | @CBIAericb