MERIDEN — When commercial flying slowed during the pandemic, aviation orders for Jonal Labs dropped 70 percent below 2019.
But the aerospace parts supplier saw an increase in government military contracts and work from other industries in need of its vulcanized rubber products. Jonal has been making flame resistant seals — the O-rings on the International Space Station— and other products at its Center Street shop for more than three decades.
A venture into after-market airplane framing parts has allowed Jonal to expand stamping operations into an additional 11,000 square-feet at 290 Pratt St.
“We are crammed into Center Street,” said Jonal Labs President Marc Nemeth.
Jonal received more than $2 million in the first round of Paycheck Protection Program funding last spring to keep its 110 employees on payroll. Nemeth is researching the next round of PPP forgivable loans to help Jonal Labs weather next year.
The pandemic has provided manufacturers with some space to focus on operations, marketing, and product diversification, manufacturers said. But it hasn’t been easy.
During the pandemic, Jonal managers continued marketing meetings with potential clients in Europe and Asia, Nemeth said. Jonal, whose clients include Pratt & Whitney, has received national exporting awards in past years for its overseas sales.
A Connecticut Business and Industry Association survey published in July found that 56 percent of manufacturers cut hours, furloughed or laid off workers. Of these, 23 percent reduced hours, 17 percent furloughed employees and 16 percent laid off employees. Another 25 percent made no changes, and an additional seven percent increased hiring and five percent increased worker hours.
“Most Connecticut manufacturers’ doors stayed open throughout the pandemic. Nonetheless, operating through significant disruptions and restrictions has been incredibly difficult,” according to a CBIA report on the survey’s findings.
Before the pandemic, manufacturing’s biggest challenge was a 10,000 job deficit brought on by the retirement of aging workers. The jobs required specialized skills and employers didn’t have the time or resources to train new workers on the changing technology.
The worker gap challenge is expected to continue into 2021, as more workers retire and the economy recovers. As of November, the state’s manufacturing workforce shrank by 4 percent in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, but recent monthly data show a slow improvement.
The Governor’s Workforce Council released a statewide strategy that calls for increasing the manufacturing slots in technical and comprehensive high schools; expanding pipeline and other short-term training programs; upskilling the workforce through incumbent-worker training and apprenticeship programs; growing community college and manufacturing programs; and retaining engineering graduates by providing internships with manufacturers.
The commercial aviation drop off is expected to improve as “more people start flying again,” Nemeth said. In the meantime, manufacturers in medical supplies, defense and consumer products, are holding steady or adding workers.
In another positive sign, Connecticut's economy grew 32.6 percent in the third quarter of 2020, rebounding from a massive, pandemic-driven contraction the previous quarter. The healthcare, manufacturing, and finance sectors led the recovery after the state's GDP contracted 31.1 percent in the second quarter. Durable goods manufacturing grew 5.21 percent in the third quarter after shrinking 3.47 percent the previous quarter.
“Overall, it’s doing better than other industries,” CBIA’s President and CEO Chris DiPentima said about manufacturing. “That’s because of the diversity of manufacturing.”
Nemeth is confident improvements in operations and marketing outreach will make 2021 a better year, while hinting at another expansion in the near future.