Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

Updated: December 23, 2019

All-star CEO roster hopes to solve CT’s workforce-development puzzle

Photo | Contributed Gov. Ned Lamont addresses his newly renamed Governor’s Workforce Council.

Here’s a Connecticut puzzle no one’s quite been able to solve:

Companies in key industries, like manufacturing, struggle to find the right skill sets for open jobs, as the aging workforce heads toward retirement and the state’s population flatlines.

Colleges face stagnant enrollment and growing uncertainty from students and parents about what economic returns they might expect from the ever-increasing cost of a degree.

A broad swath of workers and unemployed struggle to attain new skills and upward mobility as the state’s economy continues to underperform the rest of the nation with another recession potentially looming.

Meantime, throwing money at the problem is a limited option, as massive and fixed legacy costs eat up a big chunk of the state budget.

Any ideas?

For the most part, these monumental, intricately linked challenges, aren’t new or unique to Connecticut. But there’s a growing consensus that the solutions must be.

That’s what led Gov. Ned Lamont to recently launch the newly reconstituted and renamed Governor’s Workforce Council, with the goal of crafting a more coordinated and sustained workforce-development plan for Connecticut.

Loaded with high-profile CEOs from Stanley Black & Decker, Electric Boat, The Hartford and elsewhere, the 24-member council — some version of which exists in every state as a vehicle to obtain federal funding — will advise the governor on the state’s workforce strategy and investments.

Though Connecticut already boasts a relatively desirable worker pool with highly educated residents, there’s room for improvement, said Garrett Moran, a former Blackstone private equity executive and workforce-training entrepreneur who Lamont named as council chair.

Moran warns that most states are approaching workforce challenges with an urgency Connecticut must match if it doesn’t want to lose ground.

“It really is not good enough to do it the way you did it before, even if you do an A-plus job,” he said of the myriad players in the state’s workforce-development orbit, including K-12 and technical schools, employers, community and four-year colleges, career centers and regional workforce boards. “Fundamentally, we have to think differently about how we partner and what is expected of us.

“Business is moving fast to keep up with technology, and education is trying to do the same and it’s lagging. It’s no one’s fault. We’re not set up for this level of speed.”

The state’s workforce-development machinery consists of a broad array of agencies and service providers that collaborate to varying extents to match worker supply with employer demand. While the overarching aims are similar, the entities sometimes have differing funding sources, missions and performance metrics.

The state’s official workforce-development “system of systems,” as some have called it, is largely built on a federal chassis, one designed to draw tens of millions of federal dollars each year to fund training and assistance programs that place the greatest focus on low-income, underemployed and skills-deficient residents.

The workforce council will focus on those federally funded elements, but also aims to go much broader, bringing state funding and a deeper network of collaborators together to focus on in-demand industries and skill sets.

Lamont has asked the council to focus on data-driven outcomes, reduce the cost of education and training for workers, speed up the design and launch of new training programs to meet emerging needs, and place a greater emphasis on lifelong learning.

The workforce council convened its first meeting in November at Southern Connecticut State University and spent about two hours listening to presentations from agency heads, business executives and college presidents about existing training efforts, what data is collected and tracked, and funding challenges.

Kicking off the meeting with brief remarks, Lamont called Connecticut “the Silicon Valley of manufacturing” and praised its education system as one of the greatest in the world. But the pace of change is rapid, he said.

He noted that in Stamford, where UBS once had the world’s largest trading floor, WWE is moving into the space with its digital-production operations.

“The world is changing,” said Lamont, who stayed for the whole meeting. “And I’ve got to make sure we have the skill sets here to make sure employers want to come to Connecticut.”

Moran’s vision of the future is a growing state where employers can find the talent they need when they need it, and where there’s a clear strategy in place for attracting and keeping employers and workers here.

”When people come to visit Connecticut, they walk away saying ‘these guys are going places and they have a plan,’ ” he said. “That’s the way I dream about what we’re trying to do.”

The council will likely call on lawmakers to fund new or expanded programs, including some ideas poached from other states, but it can’t all be about money.

“We’ve got a big pension overhang, we’re going to have limited resources, and we’ve got to be super hard-nosed about returns, about partnering with nonprofits,” Moran said. “We’ll get there. It’s hard work. I know the answer can’t be ‘we require a ton more money’ because we don’t have it.”

It’s not clear what policy recommendations will emerge from the council, but there are already signs of change.

The Lamont administration intends to transfer the Office of Workforce Competitiveness (OWC) — which has long provided staff support and technical assistance to the workforce council’s predecessor — out of the Department of Labor and into the governor’s budget office, as a way to raise its stature.

OWC monitors workforce efforts of nearly a dozen other agencies, and deserves to be more of an independent entity, Moran said.

“It’s important they have at least equal status with the other agency heads,” he said.

Business-heavy roster

During his campaign and as governor, Lamont has shown an affinity for bringing business executives into the policy world.

For example, before he was elected governor, Lamont helped corral a team of local CEOs to pitch India IT giant Infosys on opening a large office in downtown Hartford. The effort was a success, as Infosys has already hired more than 500 people locally, on its way to a target of 1,000 (with the help of up to $14 million in state grants).

And when Lamont shook up the Connecticut Economic Resource Center earlier this year, aiming to make it a more significant economic-development partner to the state, he named business big-timers Indra Nooyi, former PepsiCo CEO, and Jim Smith, former Webster Bank CEO, as co-chairs of the not-for-profit’s board.

Lamont has stuck with that approach for his workforce development council.

He and his team convinced a prominent lineup of corporate CEOs from key sectors like technology, health care and manufacturing to join the council, in addition to college presidents and leaders from major nonprofits and unions.

They’ll receive support from 19 ex-officio members, including UConn President Thomas Katsouleas, agency commissioners and the state’s newly named manufacturing czar, Colin Cooper.

The buy-in from major companies and executives may be the biggest difference between the former Connecticut Employment and Training Commission and Lamont’s renamed version, which isn’t armed with significant new authority or funding.

Administration officials say the stature of the council’s members aims to send a signal that the governor is serious about workforce needs.

“The people at the table need to be those with the most skin in the game and who are the direct decision makers,” said Nick Simmons, Lamont’s manager of strategic initiatives and his workforce-council point man.

Simmons, a Yale alum who recently earned an MBA and public policy master’s degree from Harvard, was previously a charter school teacher and administrator in West Harlem, New York, where he taught seventh-grade math, following a previous job on Wall Street.

During Lamont’s post-election transition period, Simmons, who had volunteered on his campaign, got a Harvard Kennedy School fellowship to study Connecticut’s workforce system.

Simmons said Lamont is correct to make workforce development a priority.

“I think it’s one of the biggest policy challenges we’re going to face as a country in the 21st century, with the lifecycle of technology,” Simmons said.

While the council has about a year to produce its first report and recommendations, Simmons said there’s a longer-term intent. The hope is that frequent and close collaboration among the many workforce players will live on indefinitely.

“How do we create a system to react to different needs that arise in 2030?” Simmons said. “We want to launch great programs in the short term but also create that connective tissue, and formalize the spirit and systems of collaboration that can last well beyond any one administration.”

Like Moran, Simmons wasn’t willing to point out any specific weak links he may perceive in the state’s workforce-development apparatus.

“I wouldn’t say it’s inadequate,” Simmons said. “It is a vast web of folks sort of playing their own instruments and on their own doing a good job. The council is the conductor with a high-level view.”

Moran said the council may find some pieces of the system aren’t up to snuff. However, he is already convinced the state needs to change the way it measures the outcomes of its workforce programs.

“They ask contractors to report their outputs, but the incentive is really volume,” he said.

Moran advocates a “hard-nosed approach” to assessing the value of each training program.

One of the council’s subcommittees will focus specifically on performance data. It is led by top executives of Stamford-based job listing website Indeed and Greenwich-based investment manager AQR, which has $185 billion under management.

“Data-driven goals will be on a dashboard, and we will use it to be accountable,” Moran said. “We’ll be embarrassed by that and we’ll all feel a lot of peer pressure to meet those goals.”

Sign up for Enews


Order a PDF