July 11, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:25 am

Can manufacturing be cool again? | Development of young workforce proving a struggle for industry

Manufacturers try to entice young people into the industry by providing real-world examples of the importance -- and sometimes fun -- of the products they produce.
Karen Wosczyna-Birch, Executive Director, Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing

Manufacturing isn't cool.

For an industry perceived as dirty, low-skilled and dying in a society valuing vibrancy, intelligence and affluence, finding recruits among high schools and the young workforce is daunting.

Yet, at a time when law school graduates with six-figure debts struggle to find a job in a slow economy, Connecticut manufacturers are forced to leave many high-paying positions vacant for a lack of skilled labor.

"American society used to have great respect for the men and women who built things," said Emily DeRocco, president of The Manufacturing Institute, based in Washington, D.C. Over the past 40 years, "a general malaise seemed to settle over public education in this country … and the pipeline of workers into the manufacturing industry slowed."

Facing a lack of skilled labor in the industry, the Connecticut Community Colleges' College of Technology founded the Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing. It received $6 million in grants from the National Science Foundation to do this work.

The idea is to focus on advanced-level education, particularly for teenagers, to get them excited about careers in manufacturing.

The biggest challenge the effort faces is marketing to young people, said Executive Director Karen Wosczyna-Birch.

"We need to get away from the perception that manufacturing is dirty and greasy," Wosczyna-Birch said.

The hard part is appealing to teenagers while not coming off like adults failing at acting cool. The main selling points of a manufacturing career — job availability, salary — aren't benefits most teenagers value or readily understand.

"I don't mean to undermine a liberal arts degree, but we have specifics on concrete jobs," Wosczyna-Birch said. "The jobs are out there, and they have a good salary."

Since 1990, the Connecticut manufacturing sector shed 45 percent of its jobs. The industry is headed for a small recovery this year — a 1.3 percent increase over last year, the first such recovery since 1998, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Still, manufacturers in Connecticut are headed toward their second worst year for employment in the past two decades.

Wosczyna-Birch believes the jobs that left are the low-skilled, low-pay positions that will never come back. What remains are the higher paying positions that require more skills.

Indeed, average weekly earnings of Connecticut manufacturing production employees reached an all-time high of $1,019 in March, a 49 percent increase over the past 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A Connecticut Business & Industry survey released in June of the 4,800 manufacturing companies remaining in the state showed respondents expected to grow their Connecticut workforces to grow about 5 percent annually for the next five years.

Even if the manufacturing industry remains stagnant, the median age of Connecticut manufacturing employee is 47 years old, so as more workers retire, more young people are needed to replace them, Wosczyna-Birch said.

One of Connecticut's great strengths as a manufacturing state is its productive and varied workforce, according to a study released July 6 by the American Institute for Economic Research, a think tank based in Great Barrington, Mass.

The study said this workforce makes Connecticut the best state in the country for cost-efficient manufacturing when taking into account start-to-finish production expenses.

But the state needs to maintain this workforce strength as the younger generation replaces the old.

The University of Connecticut School of Engineering received a $3.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to have some of its 700 graduate students collaborate on lesson plans with Connecticut high schools.

"The challenge we have as educators is students aren't aware of the importance science and technology have had on their lives," said Mun Choi, UConn dean of engineering.

Connecticut has great capacity for manufacturing engineers because of the high employment demand and the relatively low number of new engineers, Choi said. UConn has 2,035 undergraduate engineering students.

UConn wants to open up a dialogue with the state's manufacturers to find out what they need from a young workforce, Choi said.

"We would like to go to you, to your company, so our students can learn from your engineers," Choi said.

According to the CBIA survey, the top in-demand manufacturing positions in Connecticut are CNC programmers, tool and die makers, CNC machinists, CAD technicians, and engineers.

To get young people exciting about these careers and make manufacturing cool again, the Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing works to convert everyone who has an influence on teenagers: parents, teachers, guidance counselors, other teenagers.

Other than talking about the high-paying, available jobs, the center focuses on real-world applications that would appear cool to teenagers: lasers at Trumpf in Farmington, jet engines at Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, guitars at Kaman Music Corp. in Bloomfield.

"Manufacturing is different," Wosczyna-Birch said. "It is not your greasy, dirty workshop that you had before. It needs skilled workers. You see clean suits more than you see hard hats."

The center offers expos, real-world engineering challenges and educational opportunities for the young workforce willing to take the next step toward a manufacturing career.

U.S. manufacturing companies increasingly are competing against other countries and face a 17 percent cost disadvantage on average, DeRocco said. To make up that difference, they need a skilled workforce capable of innovation and high productivity.

Gone are the days where manufacturers can post a job opening and pray the right applicant shows up, DeRocco said. Companies need to work together to find a way to create a highly skilled workforce and make manufacturing cool to young people again.

"Without a skilled workforce, the innovation engine grinds to a halt," DeRocco said.

A manufacturing expo at Norwalk Community College tries to convince young people of the benefits in a manufacturing career.


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