Jobs, Education Reform Among Top Issues at Connecticut Business Day
Business leaders, policymakers exchange ideas for moving forward
By Dave Conrad & Bill DeRosa
Co-sponsored by the Connecticut Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives and CBIA, Business Day focused on several topics, including jobs, education reform, business costs, and fiscal issues. Audience members and policymakers exchanged ideas on how to move ahead from last October’s special legislative session on jobs to make even more progress this year.
Everything that happens this year, said Lt. Gov. Wyman, starts with the bipartisan package of jobs programs and incentives lawmakers passed last fall. Referring to the special session as “a miracle [that] happened in October,” she said the rare across-the-aisle accomplishment was an important effort to tangibly demonstrate that Connecticut “cares about businesses.”
Since the passage of the jobs bill, the administration has turned much of its attention to another concern of businesses: declining school and student performance and the lack of well-educated, skilled workers in the state. “We have heard from businesses that they can’t find enough people who fit into the positions they have,” said Lt. Gov. Wyman.”
In response, Gov. Malloy has proposed broad education reforms (contained in Senate Bill 24) now under consideration by the legislature.
“SB 24 is really important to every parent and every business in this state,” said Business Day attendee Kris Lorch, president of Alloy Engineering Co. in Bridgeport. “Those are our future workers.”
The bill contains provisions for expanding preschool education, helping teachers and administrators become better at their professions, turning around poorly performing schools and school systems, and modernizing and revitalizing Connecticut’s technical schools. Among its goals are improving student performance and closing Connecticut’s wide achievement gap between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers.
“Poverty is not an excuse for poor student performance,” said CBIA’s president and CEO John Rathgeber, urging the Business Day audience to support SB 24.
He added that reforming public education is imperative to securing Connecticut’s future and providing young people with the opportunity to have productive lives and lead our economy.
“This issue will not move forward without your involvement,” he said. “If you do one thing this session, tell your legislators that we need to spend education dollars more wisely and, most of all, improve student performance.”
Connecting Education and Industry
Dave Anderson, plant manager at BD Medical, a division of Becton Dickinson and Co. in Canaan, plans to do just that. “From my perspective as a manufacturer, I want to know that
we’re creating a broad base of future employees, that we have people who are interested in working in a manufacturing facility in Connecticut,” he said. “The skills gaps that we talk about are interest and proficiency in math and the sciences. We need to see as much effort to create knowledge and capability in those areas as we do in reading and social studies.”
Business Day participant Jack Traver, Jr., president of electrical apparatus and service supplier Traver IDC in Waterbury, has been working with Naugatuck Valley Community College to help ensure that the curriculum and the equipment the students work on aligns with industry needs. Traver would like to see the state’s community colleges and vo-tech high schools more closely connect their curricula so that students receive a solid grounding in basic mechanical skills as well as in more advanced areas like lean and computer-aided design and drafting (CADD).
“To some extent,” said Traver, “the kids in the vo-tech schools are getting good basic mechanical skills: machining, lathes, milling, etc.: but some of the advanced manufacturing curricula at the community college level tended to concentrate more on skills like lean or CADD before students were finished learning the mechanical skills. Now it seems like more work is being done to bridge the tech programs at the high schools and the curricula at the community colleges.”
The Fiscal Factor
Legislative Republicans are backing the governor’s education priorities, said Senate Republican Leader John McKinney. “Education reform is something we must do and must do together,” he said, noting that the governor has reached out to GOP lawmakers for support. “We all agree that”_it’s not fair that our kids are in failing schools.”
But Republican lawmakers are also very concerned about the additional spending called for in the governor’s revised budget in a year that’s already seeing red.
“We should not spend one dollar more than we’ve budgeted,” said McKinney. Instead, policymakers should reduce spending in other areas to meet the $321 million in additional spending in the proposed budget revision.
The View from the DECD
“I consider everyone in this room my customer,” said DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith to Business Day attendees. After 20 years of no job growth in the state, she said the Malloy administration’s aggressive approach to listening to businesses throughout last year helped produce the successful jobs bill.
Smith said the 9,000 jobs created in Connecticut in 2011 “is a small puff of wind in our sails,” and she aims to “double or triple” that growth in the next few years.
Helping small businesses grow, improving the state’s regulatory climate, reducing business costs, and creating a “second-to-none” workforce are major priorities of her agency and the administration.
Introducing Commissioner Smith was Dr. Fred McKinney, president of the Greater New England Minority Supplier Development Council. He said that “understanding how laws impact all businesses in the state” is an integral part of Connecticut’s recovery. “The demographic reality is changing,” he added, so he appreciated the DECD’s outreach to make sure the state is “available and open to all businesses.”
“Some [policymakers] get it, and some still don’t,” said Business Day attendee Jamison Scott, vice president of Air Handling Systems in Woodbridge. “I think that’s a real challenge, and that’s why we’re here as business owners today, to help those who don’t get it to understand how critical business is to the state’s economy. When you have people standing up here saying they’re considering leaving the state because of the high costs, there are still major challenges to overcome.”
The business community, said Scott, needs to make sure our elected officials know that we’re looking at what they’re doing. “We don’t just elect them and walk away. We have to hold them accountable so we can encourage business growth and economic growth. When that happens, we’ll have more tax revenue to make improvements in areas like education.”
Jack Traver came away from Business Day with a sense of cautious optimism. “In general, it seems like there’s more of a spirit of cooperation among the different parties, the legislature, and the executive branch,” he said. “Everybody seems to be more focused on important issues like education reform. There seems to be mutual agreement on that, just as there was some bipartisan support for the jobs bill last October.”
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