May 7, 2018

CT's fiscal woes test its commitment to manufacturing-skills training

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Dozens of Connecticut manufacturers recently visited Tunxis Community College's new Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center in Farmington.
Gregory Seay

Standing at the rostrum in the soaring, light-filled classroom building at Farmington's Tunxis Community College, Mark Ojakian put on his best face.

A day earlier, the head of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system had publicly disclosed that a key education accrediting body had balked at the state's plan to consolidate its 12 community colleges into a single institution, to reap $28 million in savings amid the state's budget crisis.

Ojakian, who was the governor's longtime chief of staff before taking his latest post, had a message for the dozens of diverse manufacturing owners/executives and prospective hires present on April 25 to learn more about Tunxis' Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center that launches in August.

He urged them to press their state lawmakers to continue funding for the state's network of technical high schools, plus various manufacturing-training programs and other initiatives aimed at sustaining one of Connecticut's most lucrative economic engines.

"We have some challenges ahead, as many of you know," Ojakian said, referencing state lawmakers' efforts to craft a balanced budget that provides adequate funding to the state's education institutions.

Despite the concerns, the focus of Ojakian's remarks was on Tunxis' new, $750,000 Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center (AMTC), which opens this fall to train the next generation of technologists skilled in additive manufacturing, 3-D printing, computer numerically controlled machine programming and metrology, involving quality checks of finished parts to very fine tolerances.

Tunxis will become the eighth state community college with an AMTC. The others are in Enfield, Bridgeport, Danielson, Manchester, Middletown, Norwich and Waterbury.

Connecticut has invested significantly in manufacturing education and skills training-certification in recent years to meet the hiring demands of small and big employers, including Pratt & Whitney, which said it will need thousands of new engineers in coming years to devise next-generation jet-engine technologies. Electric Boat in Groton and Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, too, are ramping up hiring and engaging in-state suppliers and subcontractors to satisfy their billion-dollar U.S. defense contracts for submarines and helicopters.

But manufacturers say they are already experiencing a gap in skills and experience between entry-level workers and veterans. They are looking to community colleges to supply them with "middle-skill'' workers, those with an engineering-technology degree, and perhaps a management certification, that would move them up the career ladder, said Karen Wosczyna-Birch, state director for the Connecticut College of Technology.

Moreover, many of the state's manufacturing workers are nearing retirement — many of them at small machine shops — and must be replaced.

For the April pre-launch session, Tunxis invited more than 60 area manufacturing owners and executives and top administrators from Enfield's Asnuntuck Community College, which was the first to open its AMTC.

After hearing from Ojakian, James Lombella, president of both Tunxis and Asnuntuck, and three current and former Tunxis manufacturing students who aspire to be engineers, attendees broke into three working groups — wire manufacturing, aerospace production and general manufacturing — to share with Tunxis instructors and administrators what attributes and skills they want from new hires.

Chief among them, most manufacturers said, are workers who are reliable and susceptible to what one manufacturing executive described as hiring on a "WHIM." Referencing a book by the same title, the acronym stands for "work ethic, humility, integrity, maturity,'' which embodies unteachable personal traits that employers say they often look for first in job candidates.

Earlier, Lombella told manufacturers that Tunxis and the other advanced manufacturing training centers in the state are eager to partner with them not only to provide a jobs conduit for graduates, but to help craft and refine the centers' manufacturing-technology curricula.

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