WASHINGTON — Jobs in Connecticut’s manufacturing industry are about half of what they were in the sector’s heyday of the 1980s and haven’t fully recovered since the last recession, but state officials are hoping for an upswing.
Connecticut is betting on the state’s manufacturing legacy, spending millions of dollars to train workers for big manufacturers like Electric Boat, and have named the state’s first chief manufacturing officer — Colin Cooper, 59, a former design engineer at Pratt & Whitney.
Connecticut’s U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, also say promotion of manufacturing in the state is a priority, with Murphy highlighting a “Monday Manufacturer” every week.
But the growth of manufacturing in the state, which accounts for more than 160,000 jobs in Connecticut and about 11% of the state’s GDP, has lagged behind the national increase in employment in that sector.
Nationally, there has been an increase of 11% in manufacturing employment over the last decade, since the economy was in the throes of the last recession.
In Connecticut, there are now fewer manufacturing jobs than there were 10 years ago, but there’s a slow trend towards growth.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 163,000 manufacturing jobs in Connecticut in November 2009. Employment in the sector plunged to a low of about 157,000 in 2015 and, according to the bureau’s latest calculations, rose to about 162,000 as of November.
Manufacturing in Connecticut suffered from the last recession and its aftermath, because of Pentagon cost-cutting and other factors, including a tightening of credit for small manufacturers.
But Eric Brown, vice president of manufacturing policy and outreach at the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, is optimistic.
“We are on the upswing, which is good, and we hope to be on the upswing for some time,” he said.
A main reason there are some areas of Connecticut experiencing a growth in the sector? A boost in defense spending.
That’s prompting Electric Boat to invest more than $1.7 billion to add roughly 750,000 square feet of new buildings, including a dedicated manufacturing facility for a new, longer model of the Virginia-class submarine and another facility to assemble and test the Navy’s top priority, a new nuclear ballistic submarines called the Columbia class.
“We are continuing to hire, train and develop the next generation of shipbuilders,” Electric Boat spokeswoman Elizabeth Power said.
She said EB has hired 15,000 new employees and expects to hire a similar number in the next eight years. The sub maker has more than 3,000 suppliers, with more than $16 billion in contracts, in Connecticut and the nation’s other 49 states.
However, some of these new hires are replacing older, highly skilled workers who are retiring.
Manufacturing in Connecticut hit a peak in the 1980’s; in 1990 about 300,000 worked in that sector. Since then, there has been a fairly steady decline until very recently.
For years there was a disincentive for young people to join an industry that was already in decline.
That means today’s workforce looks like a “bar bell,” with older workers laboring alongside millennials with much fewer skills and less experience, said Cooper, who, besides working for Pratt & Whitney, is the former CEO of the Whitcraft Group, a Connecticut manufacturer that supplies precision parts to many of the world’s largest aerospace companies.
Cooper said he was hired as the state’s manufacturing czar “because the manufacturing community felt it was important to have someone inside the state government who is an advocate for manufacturing.”
The job comes with challenges.
Cooper said 35% of Connecticut’s manufacturing workforce is over 55 years old. And those experienced workers are hard to replace when they retire.
“The biggest issue today is workforce development, having enough skilled people to do the work,” Cooper said. “As our more senior employees retire, you are replacing a highly skilled employee with a less skilled employee.”
The Navy’s concerns about whether there was enough skilled workforce at Electric Boat’s shipyards was a factor in its decision to commission nine Virginia-class submarines, instead of 10, in its latest contract, which left open the possibility of additional boats.
So while the Pentagon’s demand is strong – and growing — for the type of manufacturing Connecticut excels in — what Cooper calls “high complexity, low volume manufacturing” resulting in submarines, helicopters and aerospace production — the demand could disappear if there’s not a workforce to handle it.
“It will find another home,” Cooper said. “That demand will go somewhere else.”
Brown also expressed that concern.
“In addition to a workforce gap, there’s a skills gap,” he said.
A recent CBIA report on manufacturing in the state said, “a large majority of manufacturers are experiencing pain around workforce challenges.”
The report said most of the manufacturers CBIA surveyed, both large and small, expressed difficulties in recruiting and retaining young workers.
Mark Hill, chief operating officer at the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, is hoping a “manufacturing pipeline” fills that gap.
He helps the Eastern Connecticut Manufacturing Pipeline turn out skilled workers – most of them a perfect fit for a job at Electric Boat. Others are hired by subcontractors and other companies that also need skilled workers.
In 2016, a federal grant, for $6 million, helped set up the pipeline whose website says “no experience necessary.”
“We thought we would place 400 workers,” Hill said. “Instead we’ve placed 1,500.”
About 1,000 of the trainees were hired by Electric Boat, which helped create the curriculum taught at local community colleges to produce welders, pipe fitters, electricians and drafters.
Hill calls the program a “win-win” for both the unemployed, underemployed, and manufacturers in search of skilled labor.
“I’m very bullish about it because the model works,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, of the pipeline program.
Now funded by a $2.5 million state grant as well as corporate donations, the program focuses on filling entry level jobs and apprenticeships. This allows other money in a $50 million state Manufacturing Innovation Fund to be spent on upgrading the skills of existing workers.
To Cooper, manufacturing provides young people with an attractive alternative to a four-year college education and the debt that might entail. He said today’s plants are well lit, modern and safe, and the work challenging with opportunities for advancement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a manufacturing worker in Connecticut was $96,279 in 2017.
“The perception that manufacturing is dirty, dull and dangerous is out of date,” Cooper said.
Connecticut’s manufacturing Renaissance is strongest in the Hartford and New London areas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Hartford area is home to more than 60,000 manufacturing jobs, up from about 56,000 in 2009.
That’s largely due to “Aerospace Alley” – a ribbon of manufacturers along the I-91 corridor from Hartford to the Connecticut-Massachusetts border that includes Pratt & Whitney and its suppliers.
“Aerospace is strong not only on the military side, but on the commercial side as well,” Collins said.
The New London area has 18,000 manufacturing jobs, up from about 15,000 in 2009, largely due to increased work at Electric Boat.
But manufacturing jobs are in decline in other parts of the state. In the New Haven area, the number of manufacturing jobs dropped from 26,600 in November of 2009 to fewer than 23,000 last month.
Another hurdle to those who seek to expand manufacturing in Connecticut comes from other states.
The recent CBIA report said state manufacturers are concerned about Connecticut’s fiscal problems and its regulatory atmosphere.
“They are competing against businesses in other states that have surpluses in their state budgets,” said Brown of the CBIA.