May 5, 2014

Manufacturers add training programs to fill jobs gap

Photos | Pablo Robles
Photos | Pablo Robles
Tomz Corp. added 20,000 square feet to its Berlin facility this year, which will help the company increase its number of production machines and bring more contracted work in-house. Above and to the right are photos of Tomz’s manufacturing plant, where it makes medical and aerospace parts.
Photos | Contributed
Brian Mills (above, right) and Jeremy Cedeno (right) were two of the first graduates from Connecticut Spring & Stamping’s in-house training institute in Farmington, developed to help the company create workers for an expected increase in demand.

Tom Matulaniec wants to hire 105 employees immediately for his Berlin manufacturer Tomz Corp. plus another 60 in the next five years to support the company's expansion sparked by the growing demand for medical devices.

Yet, while Matulaniec's last round of hiring yielded 127 applicants, only two stayed on as long-term employees.

Instead of hoping the next round of applicants will yield better talent, or that training at Connecticut vocational schools and community colleges will churn out suitable graduates, Matulaniec plans to launch his own training institute.

"Our only limit to growth is having enough machine operators," said Matulaniec, Tomz's vice president. "There is no private or public source that is creating the people we need."

Matulaniec's problem in finding enough qualified talent is not a new issue in the manufacturing industry, but his solution — developing an in-house training institute — joins a growing number of Connecticut companies deciding that training their own people is the way to go.

"Those things are really needed," said Jerry Clupper, executive director of the New Haven Manufacturers Association. "There are companies that do pretty extensive in-house training."

The training ranges from general machine operation to apprenticeship programs for younger workers, Clupper said. More employers are training entry-level workers, but it is still important for incumbent workers to learn more skills for advanced manufacturing, too.

"If you can upgrade the current personnel into higher value-added jobs, then you have more entry-level jobs open up," Clupper said.

Selim Noujaim, executive vice president at Waterbury precision tool maker Noujaim Tool Co., said his company focuses heavily on its training and apprenticeship programs both for incumbent workers and potential new hires. Noujaim Tool works closely with the W.F. Kaynor Regional Vocational Technical School in Waterbury to develop the types of entry-level machine operators it needs.

"We groom them to become tomorrow's toolmakers because you can't find toolmakers right now," said Noujaim, who is also a state lawmaker. "You have to train people and get them ready. Otherwise, we will be out of business."

For Tomz, its planned training institute is vital to its expansion plans. The Berlin company added 20,000 square feet to its facility at 47 Episcopal Road this year, increasing its size 25 percent. Tomz purchased an additional five acres of land from its neighbor — lock manufacturer Assa Abloy — with plans to ramp up its business.

While Tomz services both the medical device and aerospace industry subsectors, Matulaniec said the company really found its niche manufacturing spinal implants such as those for degenerative disc disease, a rapidly growing subsector. Tomz is working to land contracts with four major customers for the spinal implants in 2015.

"Personally, I am terrified if we get all four because we don't have the people to run all the machines," Matulaniec said.

Ideally, the company would grow now from 145 employees to 250, Matulaniec said. Plus, 75 percent of its 80 machine operators are within five years of retirement, so the company needs people to replace them.

Matulaniec still is working to set up the in-house training institute, developing a curriculum and lining up instructors. The company also has had preliminary discussions with the state Department of Economic and Community Development about providing funding to cover the expense of training students, since they could potentially go to another manufacturer.

"I don't want to train 20 people and have 20 people work somewhere else," Matulaniec said. "If that is the case, then I don't want to do it."

Farmington precision parts manufacturer Connecticut Spring & Stamping (CSS) already has developed an in-house apprenticeship program, which was designed to increase the company's capacity for upcoming expansions in the medical, aerospace, firearms, and defense industry subsectors.

Two of the CSS trainees — Brian Mills and Jeremy Cedeno — graduated in mid-April and are set to join the company's production teams. The 75-year-old firm has 10 other trainees in the program.

"These employees went through a program that allows us to be one step ahead of other companies, giving us a cadre of home-grown technical experts who can grow the company," said Bob Allen, CSS' director of engineering, tooling and metal form.

Despite the push for more in-house training and a skilled manufacturing workforce, the industry continues to lose jobs. The industry that once had 292,000 workers in 1991 employed 161,900 this past February, according to the state Department of Labor.

Even as manufacturing employment continues to decline, however, the industry is becoming more optimistic, Clupper said. Companies like Tomz see growth in niche markets and the aerospace parts suppliers see growth on the horizon as major manufacturers like Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford and GE in Fairfield sell their next generation engines.

"People still aren't confident but they are growing, and they no longer feel like tomorrow is doomsday," Clupper said.

Tomz wants to grab hold of its opportunities now, Matulaniec said. Its training institute is in its early stages, but creating those skilled workers will be necessary for the company's long-term survival and growth.

"If all this work comes back, and there is no one to do it, what do we do then?" Matulaniec said.

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