The head of the state’s new workforce development office said Connecticut must begin its workforce development efforts early if it’s going to meet the manufacturing industry’s demand for thousands of skilled workers.

“Workforce development starts in kindergarten,” said Kelli-Marie Vallieres, director of the new office tasked with coordinating Connecticut’s various workforce development programs.

Kelli-Marie Vallieres
Connecticut Workforce Development Unit executive director Kelli-Marie Vallieres.

“Students are the product of the system and we have to produce a product that industry needs.”

Vallieres was an established leader in Connecticut manufacturing when Gov. Ned Lamont tapped her this summer to serve as executive director of the new Office of Workforce Strategy within the Department of Economic and Community Development.

The office will coordinate workforce development policy, including training, education, and worker placement.

Vallieres continues serving as vice chair of the Governor’s Workforce Council, a position she’s held since October 2019.

Momentum

In the short time since she began, Vallieres has immersed herself in her new job.

“We’re getting a lot of momentum about introducing workforce development into our curriculum,” she said.

"We want to expose children to the world of work by middle school, then build out career pathways by high school."

Kelli-Marie Vallieres

She envisions a curriculum that not only teaches math, science, reading, and writing but provides students with concrete examples of how those lessons are used in various professions.

“We want to expose children to the world of work by middle school, then build out career pathways by high school,” she said.

Vallieres also oversaw the council’s recent completion of a strategic plan for next year, which will guide her office’s efforts.

Industry Focus

The plan puts industry at the center as the customer and the student as the product for that customer.

“We’re undergoing a solid detailed process to implement this plan,” she said. “Some things are a multiyear initiative, some are intermediate, and some short term.”

One of the first steps is getting state agencies to work together on workforce development efforts, which will happen through better data management, then breaking down barriers to entry into the workforce, she said.

“The data management systems are old and don’t talk to each other, so making data-driven decisions is difficult to do across departments,” Valllieres said.

“We have a system that integrates some data but it’s not intuitive.

“But there’s work going on, things happening to improve systems, including a big focus on our data management system.”

Equity, Access Issues

She said state agencies are partnering in the workforce development effort and “starting to put their arms around the magnitude of this and working to make improvements to the system.”

The state must also address equity and access to workforce development for underserved populations, she said.

“There’s a lot of work to be done to remove those barriers and a lot of funding that needs to go into these programs,” she said.

Vallieres says the state must address equity and access to workforce development for underserved populations.

“We must also address the equity gap for underserved populations.

“Students in underserved populations in some cases don’t have people in their lives who have meaningful jobs.”

Barriers

Vallieres also stressed the need for workforce development for adult populations, including the underemployed and underskilled who need to be reskilled.

She singled out child care as an example of a barrier.

"The child care system was broken before the pandemic. It discourages people because everything they make goes to child care."

Vallieres

“The child care system was broken before the pandemic,” she said. “It discourages people to engage in work because everything they make goes to child care. That’s even if they can find child care.”

Vallieres points to her own experience as a young working mother.

“After I had my second child I was making $50 a week after childcare,” she said. “You ask yourself, ‘Is it really worth it?’”

"Use Your Brain'

Vallieres likes to quote West Hartford business leader Ari Santiago when discussing the differences between manufacturing 40 years ago and today.

“Ari says, ‘We used to think of manufacturing as dark, dingy and dirty. Today, it’s clean, lean, and green,’” she said. “Also, ‘You used to have to use your brawn. Now you have to use your brain.’”

That’s because the lines that separate IT, computer science, and manufacturing are disappearing, Vallieres said.

“Running those machines is running computers, plus you have the quality control aspect that’s computerized and statistical.,” she said. “It makes it exciting.

“The next industrial revolution is going to revolve around artificial intelligence and smart factories, and we won’t lose jobs, we’ll improve the quality of them.

“That’s why we need to start focusing on the children in school today. They will be our workforce of the future.”