August 27, 2018
Special Series: Building Connecticut's Workforce Pipeline

State's labor challenges are many

Illustration | c! | CharacterFamily & Sable Vector, shutterstock.com
Illustration | c! | CharacterFamily & Sable Vector, shutterstock.com

Connecticut's labor force is a major driver of the state's economy that, if fine tuned, could offer a competitive advantage in attracting jobs and investment capital.

But like nearly all complex systems run by people, the state's labor market is inefficient.

In an ideal world, every person who wants a job would have one that provides satisfaction, purpose and security. Meanwhile, every employer would have a well-stocked pipeline of job candidates, with just the right skill-sets, at the ready to come aboard during a time of growth, or to bid bon voyage to a crop of longtime, loyal workers headed toward retirement.

Unfortunately, that's not how things really work.

Though Connecticut's labor force is 1.7 million strong — and highly educated, to boot — the matchmaking process isn't always easy.

Connecticut employers will need to fill an estimated 56,000 jobs annually through 2024, and several industries — health care, manufacturing and construction — are facing significant labor shortages, or the need to fill tens of thousands of jobs in the coming years, according to estimates from the state's economists.

There is also a mismatch of available jobs and skill-sets for certain industries in Connecticut.

Middle-skill jobs, which require more education and training than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree, account for 48 percent of Connecticut's labor market, but only 38 percent of the state's workers are qualified for those positions, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. At the same time, we have an oversupply of low-skill workers.

The need for a college education, however, will only grow in this state. About 38 percent of Connecticut residents 25 years and older have a bachelor's degree or higher, but by 2020 over 70 percent of jobs will require postsecondary degrees, according to a 2014 American Community Survey.

Hitting the 70-percent target will require 300,000 more grads than current rates of production will supply. Connecticut must also lure more college-educated individuals from out of state.

Connecticut, using both its own money as well as grants and federal funds, has tried to address these various issues, creating some programs that have produced promising results.

But because the economy evolves, workforce development is an equation that's never truly solved.

The challenges are many.

New hires often need training, which can cost time and money without any guarantee of a return on investment (turnover is a problem facing many employers). For better-paying gigs with greater responsibilities, employers often filter out applicants who lack the requisite work experience or education, which might take years to acquire. Sometimes, companies simply need more job candidates than area colleges or training programs can churn out in time; or employers and educators realize entirely new programs must be created.

Then there's the other half of the equation: the job seeker. Life's uncertainties and struggles may spur some to accept an offer right away. Others could be choosier, wanting to ensure they're making the best possible move according to their perceived value.

It's a combination of timing, strategy, planning and luck, akin to a game of musical chairs, but with real-life consequences.

With all that in mind, the Hartford Business Journal decided workforce development was an important topic to explore for our annual summer series, which kicks off today and will run for several weeks.

While it's not the only factor, a skilled workforce is a major consideration for any executives thinking about where to locate their businesses. The health of our economy could very well depend on how we prepare our next generation of workers.

Workforce development reaches across government, the private sector, nonprofits, colleges and even down to school children whose ideas about the future are still forming.

Connecticut's fiscal and demographic challenges lend additional urgency and complexity to the topic. The state's high debt and sluggish growth could constrain potential investments aimed at supercharging workforce-development programs. The state also has an aging population that will create gaps in the workforce, and more people are leaving Connecticut than moving in.

While Connecticut is a wealthy state, the gap between its rich and poor is vast. Many potentially productive workers, who could be bettering their own lives and the state's economy, face systemic challenges, including a lack of access to child care, transportation and education. Some have a criminal record stymying their potential upward mobility.

Today and in the weeks ahead, we'll introduce you to Connecticut's numerous workforce-development players, walk you through their challenges and how they're trying to tackle them, and explore ways employers are trying to recruit top talent.

You'll likely glean from our series that workforce development, if it's to make a difference, must be built around strong collaborations and partnerships. Those relationships are out there in Connecticut. Perhaps you could make them stronger.

For our readers who have management positions and hiring responsibilities, maybe our stories will inspire you to play some small part. It could benefit your company, industry and even the state.

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