March 27, 2017

Vo-tech instructor shortage is manufacturing's next big test

PHOTO | Liz Connelly
PHOTO | Liz Connelly
State House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (left) recently toured AMCO Precision Tool of Berlin to discuss their workforce needs. AMCO specializes in manufacturing intricate aerospace and commercial parts.
PHOTO | Liz Connelly
State House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, right, talks with staff at Gibbs Wire & Steel in Southington.
PHOTO | Contributed
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (left) at Sirois Tool Co. Inc. in Berlin.

It has taken some time, but Connecticut manufacturers say Millennials are waking up to the career opportunities that await them in a sector eager to harness their skills.

But now a new dilemma has emerged that is slowing manufacturers' workforce buildup: A rising shortage of vocational-technical instructors to train the next generation of manufacturing talent fast enough to replace those aging out of the workforce.

The industry experience required, some say, to train newcomers as machinists is too long and confining to build the corps of manufacturing-technology instructors, particularly at the Connecticut Technical High School System.

Replenishing its labor ranks is especially important right now to Connecticut manufacturers, particularly defense-related producers like Pratt & Whitney and Electric Boat, which could benefit mightily from President Donald Trump's proposal for a huge spike in defense spending.

State House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Berlin) says he has recently traveled the state, talking to manufacturers, and there is a common refrain among them. Not enough instructors means either smaller class sizes, or none at all, further lengthening the time needed to train workers.

"Connecticut is a national leader in advanced manufacturing — particularly for our national defense — and our technical high school system is a key part of the pipeline for these growing industries that are critical to our economy," Aresimowicz said.

To that end, the state's manufacturers, with the support of the technical-high schools and community colleges, are pushing legislative bills that would trim the minimum experience level required to become a certified vo-tech instructor. Senate Bill 950 also would widen the pool of training venues beyond just one in New Britain, to include online courses.

The current requirement that vocational-technical instructors have a minimum of eight years experience, as an apprentice or in other hands-on manufacturing, to qualify to teach is too burdensome and limits the instructor pool, Aresimowicz said.

Skilled manufacturing talent with eight years of experience is in high demand — and well paid — in an industry facing the largest turnover in its ranks in the coming years, due to retirements. Trimming the minimum experience requirement to five years, manufacturers and others say, would widen the instructor talent pool.

"What we're really looking for is someone with the passion to teach,'' said Charles Reese, co-chair of the legislative affairs committee of the New Haven Manufacturers Association, a leading industry lobby. "You want to set up a situation where they can [teach], without taking too much of a [salary] haircut.''

On top of the eight-year requirement, instructors must also complete what some say is the equivalent of a master's degree to earn a teaching certification. Moreover, only one state college, Central Connecticut State University, is sanctioned to provide that certification, officials say. Reform proponents would like instructor prospects to be able to earn credits via online courses.

Aresimowicz says he believes the measure will pass because so many in the industry think it's needed. By 2020, some 50,000 manufacturing workers in this state will reach age 65, state labor data shows, increasing pressure to train new workers quickly.

Not everyone, however, supports the bill. Paul Angelucci, vice president of the state's union representing 1,200 vo-tech instructors — the State Vocational Federal of Teachers — submitted written testimony opposing S.B. 950, insisting it waters down qualifications and threatens the quality of education not only for machinists, but other hands-on trades as well. These include heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) installation-repair, electrical, carpentry and masonry.

"This bill is an attempt to address a real problem we face in the [Connecticut Technical High School System], but I believe the unintended consequences will hurt student learning," Angelucci wrote in testimony.

Ed Leavy, president of the State Vocational Federation of Teachers, said the difficulty in hiring manufacturing talent is no different than it is in the licensed trades and it's "the licensed trades where they have trouble getting teachers.''

The best thing for the vo-tech instructors and their pupils, Leavy said, is for the state to end talk about closing vo-tech schools, or trimming their budgets.

Deputy Majority Leader Michelle Cook, a Torrington Democrat whose district is heavily manufacturing, says education/training is too vital to cut, adding that producers and other trades must have ways to enhance and accelerate both.

"We're not looking to under-educate the educators,'' said Cook, who sits on the education and human-services committees.

See Related Story: Manufacturing not the only CT sector lacking workers

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