WALLINGFORD— Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. signed a proclamation at an event this week to formally launch a new initiative aimed at helping local manufacturing businesses fill a growing number of vacancies.
The townwide initiative promotes student interest in “STEM” fields — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — in hopes that more students will enter those fields after graduating.
Local officials and representatives from local manufacturing businesses gathered Wednesday for an event to start the campaign. There are over 500,000 unfilled positions in STEM fields nationally — including almost 30,000 vacancies in Connecticut and about 1,000 openings in Wallingford, School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo said.
"The number one issue that we deal with in terms of our present employers is the unavailability of workforce,” Tim Ryan, the town’s economic development specialist, said about local manufacturers. "I don't know of any of our manufacturing businesses that are running at full staff right now."
Menzo emphasized the importance of supporting local manufacturers. He and Ryan worked together on the initiative.
“If I can’t keep the businesses in town with the help of everybody...we’re going to have more difficult times supporting our education system,” Menzo said. “And for selfish reasons, I want my students to have the best educational system they can have.”
The event culminated with Dickinson signing a proclamation declaring the town a “STEM community.” Menzo said the proclamation “formalizes the town’s commitment to its students and businesses.”
The initiative will establish different classes and a series of extracurricular activities to foster students’ interest and aptitude in STEM. For example, the campaign was kicked off last month with a district-wide design contest for students in grades kindergarten through 8. Students were tasked with making a boat out of a 6-inch by 6-inch piece of aluminum foil so that the boat could hold as much weight as possible while floating in a baby pool.
“It was amazing to see these kids get so excited about design thinking, about using their ideas from science and math and putting it all together to engineer,” said Kate O’Donnell, the district’s science curriculum resource teacher.
To help fill STEM jobs in the more immediate future, the town is hoping to establish a “pipeline program” that would offer a 10-to-12 week career development program to recent high school graduates and other town residents looking for a career change. The program would identify whether participants have math and English-language arts proficiency, and if not, allow participants to take courses to become proficient with hopes of eventually getting the participant hired.
Local state legislators also spoke at Wednesday’s event.
“When we can prepare our students for the careers that are going to be open to them, there’s no limit in what we can do,” said state Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire.
State Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who represents Wallingford, said he toured businesses around the state a few years ago and “the big thing that became apparent is the lack of kids who have knowledge with STEM and inability to fill those jobs with kids coming out of our high schools or out of our colleges.”
“That was amazing to me that everybody in the United States looks at the Northeast, and Connecticut in particular, as having the most educated population, but yet we can’t fill these jobs,” Fasano said.
Fasano said Wallingford’s efforts in promoting manufacturing, including developing curriculum in public schools tailored for helping kids enter manufacturing, should be mirrored statewide.
“This is a model that we have to take to the state,” Fasano said. “This is a model that works well and gets kids employed, that we have to bring to our cities. That’s how we’re going to move this state forward.”