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How should CT tackle its worker shortage in manufacturing? Here are some ideas.

Hour - 4/3/2024

Apr. 1—Connecticut took nearly four years to recover all the jobs lost during shutdowns at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But one of its largest sectors still has fewer positions today than in early 2020.

Manufacturing's lack of jobs growth is not due to a lack of a demand, but rather because there are not enough new hires to fill the sector's thousands of job openings across the state. As a result, many firms are increasingly relying on automation in their operations. Tackling the worker shortage is a top priority for state officials, who are pursuing a number of solutions, including expanded programming in the state's higher-education system.

"My goal is to get to full employment in the manufacturing sector by 2030," Paul Lavoie, the state's chief manufacturing officer, said during a hearing of the General Assembly'sCommerce Committee on March 19. "What that means is that we need robust workforce-development plans, we need a robust workforce-growth plan, and then we need a robust workforce-innovation plan to be able to drive innovation. And that's an area where we are currently under-focused and under-resourced in making sure we're providing manufacturers with what they need."

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The challenge of filling many job openings

Connecticut lost nearly 290,000 jobs in the spring of 2020 as much of the economy shut down during the early stages of the pandemic — a record-breaking loss for the state in a two-month span.

The upheaval inevitably affected manufacturing. Between February 2020 and April 2020, the sector's in-state employment declined by nearly 12,000 positions, or about 7 percent, to 149,000 jobs, according to data from the state Department of Labor.

Since then, many manufacturers across the state have resumed hiring, to meet escalating demand for their products and services. By January 2024, manufacturing's in-state jobs total had climbed back to 158,400.

But the fact that manufacturing's employment was down 2,400 positions from its tally in February 2020 was a symptom of persistent worker shortages. There were an estimated 9,000 manufacturing job openings in Connecticut last year, according to the 2023 Connecticut Manufacturing Report, which was produced by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) and affiliates CONNSTEP and ReadyCT. Among other key findings in the report, 86 percent of manufacturers reported that they were having difficulty finding and/or retaining employees, while the lack of qualified candidates posed the greatest obstacle to growth for 48 percent of respondents.

Connecticut's demographic challenges are compounding manufacturers' predicament. Reflecting the impact of widespread retirements among older workers, the state's labor force in January 2024 was about 2 percent smaller than it was at the beginning of 2020, according to Department of Labor data.

With Baby Boomers retiring, "there's not enough of a population coming into the workforce," Kerry Brown, vice president of operations at Curtis Packaging, said in an interview last Thursday at the company's headquarters in the Sandy Hook section of Newtown. "We're not alone in that regard. Finding employees is really hard."

In response to the labor scarcity, manufacturers are doubling down on their efforts to boost productivity — particularly through increased automation. Curtis Packaging's upgrades include a new printing press that will be installed at its approximately 150,000-square-foot headquarters. At its home base, Curtis Packaging produces luxury packaging for a client list that includes the golf brand Titleist.

In the long-term, however, manufacturers' capital expenditures could help to catalyze revenue growth, which would then spur more hiring. At Curtis Packaging, which has about 120 employees, executives are hoping that the new technology will help the company to nearly double its annual sales during the next seven years.

"We're working hard now on the sales side to really drive additional business in. And once we get to a certain breaking point, we'll have to start hiring," said Donald Droppo Jr., Curtis Packaging's CEO and president. "You don't just hire two or three people in printing and just run an extra shift, because you need all the support staff around them. It's a real big investment."

Legislators seek to bolster workforce development

Many state legislators said that tackling the worker shortages in manufacturing and other sectors is essential to putting Connecticut's economy on a sound footing in the post-pandemic era. As an example of their efforts to better understand the issue, Lavoie, state Sen. Tony Hwang of Fairfield, and Chris DiPentima, the CBIA's CEO and president, took a tour of Curtis Packaging's headquarters last Thursday.

"One of the greatest challenges is how do we maintain that pipeline in the workforce," said Hwang, a Republican, whose district includes Newtown. "We need to continue to feed that pipeline because (current workers) are getting older."

Among possible remedies, the legislature's Commerce Committee advanced a bill on March 21 to the floor of the General Assembly that authorizes the state Bond Commission to provide up to $4 million to support a proposed manufacturing apprenticeship program and community robotics center at the state's community college's Tunxis campus in Farmington. In another section of the building that would house the apprenticeship program and robotics center, an already-funded advanced manufacturing training center is scheduled to open this fall.

"We talk about disengaged youth, in the education committee ... I can tell you firsthand that these programs engage kids in this important sector of our workforce," state Rep. Chris Poulos, D-Southington, said during the March 21 committee meeting. "There is a social-and-emotional, interpersonal component to these robotics programs ... I endorse this wholeheartedly."

Other committee members also spoke in support of the bill.

"This is the real-world way to introduce them to manufacturing," said state Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, who is the committee's co-chairwoman.

Mark Burzynski, technical talent development adviser at the Bristol-based Arthur G. Russell Co., which specializes in custom assembly machinery, and a member of the state Office of Manufacturing's advisory board, said that a new hub at Tunxis would help Connecticut catch up with the workforce-development initiatives in other states.

"Frankly, the reason that I'm so committed to this is we want to continue to grow and sustain the Arthur G. Russell Co., and we want to do it here in Connecticut," Burzynski said during the committee's March 19 hearing. "I see these programs blossoming all over the country — in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Ohio, Indiana. And it's not happening here, and I want to see it happen here."

The timeframe for opening the manufacturing apprenticeship and robotics center at Tunxis is to be determined, according to officials in the community college system. Assuming that the full legislature passes the bill and the governor signs it into law, its timeline would hinge on when funds would be approved by the state Bond Commission. Among other considerations, the community college system would have to determine the necessary staffing levels needed at the college to support the hub.

In this academic year, about 2,000 community college students are enrolled in credit and noncredit manufacturing programs, according to data provided by the community college system.

"This legislation complements our manufacturing strategy to provide our students with the hands-on training needed to pursue a lucrative career in advanced manufacturing," Sam Norton, a spokesperson for Connecticut State Colleges & Universities, which includes the community college system, said in a written statement. "Any funds authorized by the Connecticut State Bond Commission will help ensure CSCU's institutions and students continue to be a part of Connecticut's growth strategy."


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