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October 27, 2014 Other Voices

CT manufacturers still fear skilled labor shortage

Robert (Bob) Sobolewski

Connecticut's manufacturers give the world helicopters, submarines, motors, jet engines, even cranial implants. They are, and always have been, leaders in the art of making things and as a result, our world-class manufacturers are critical drivers of the state's economy.

Here in Connecticut, 4,357 manufacturers employ 163,380 workers. That workforce earns $13.6 billion in wages and salaries annually.

Manufacturing is a great economic multiplier.

Every one manufacturing job in the state adds 1.5 to four additional jobs to the workforce. For every $1 spent in manufacturing, an additional $1.35 of economic activity is generated. In 2011, the state's manufacturing industry paid $137 million in Connecticut corporate taxes and multiples of that in sales taxes and local property taxes.

Connecticut products are found in over 200 countries and state manufacturers are responsible for $16.5 billion in exports. Connecticut manufacturing also is integral to national security as state companies bring home over $12.7 billion in defense contracts.

October is Manufacturing Month, which is meant to bring attention to the industry — acknowledging both its successes and its challenges. With a resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S. — including an onshoring trend and an increase in aerospace demand — you'd think we'd be riding high with no complaints.

Not quite. Having managed the growth of ebm-papst Inc. for nearly three decades, I share the views of my fellow Connecticut manufacturers. Federal and state regulations, taxes, demand cycles, raw material prices, overhead costs, and competition keep us up at night.

But our biggest concern may be the labor demand and the lack of skilled talent.

High-quality production is not possible without an educated, skilled workforce and Connecticut manufacturers can be only as innovative and talented as their employees. As highly experienced employees begin to retire, I worry about who will replace them.

In order to expand our workforces as we also fill vacancies of retiring workers, many manufacturers will look to groom and train their existing workers. This, however, is a short-term solution for what is likely a long-term problem.

State technical high schools have made a good start on addressing some of the manufacturers' workforce concerns.

These schools have improved their performance by collaborating with different industries. Together, they created solid curriculum and deployed it consistently throughout the state. Based on employer-driven credentials, trade programs allow businesses to know exactly the skill level of each new hire.

Beyond high school, four advanced manufacturing centers, operated through the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, offer a certificate in advanced manufacturing machine technology.

In addition to manufacturing certificates, Connecticut's colleges and universities offer some of the most competitive engineering programs in the country. 

The state Board of Regents for Higher Education is also committed to providing better connections between associate degree programs offered at community colleges to four-year degrees at state colleges and universities. This will accelerate opportunities for young people to enter manufacturing careers.

All of this, however, might not bring results fast enough. Manufacturers don't have years to develop a skilled workforce. We need to find ways to expedite the learning curve.

The Connecticut Business & Industry Association's Education Foundation partners with educational institutions and employers to address industry concerns and workforce shortages, and identify solutions that help bridge the gap between what employers need and what schools are teaching.

The Foundation also engages children at early ages to create an interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as in manufacturing.

This will take time, but we're making progress. To be successful, everything needs to be connected and everyone has to be rowing in the same direction.

A great example of this is the CT20x17 campaign. The campaign aims to make Connecticut a top 20 state for business by 2017, a goal to help all industries — including manufacturing — thrive while creating more opportunities for everyone.

A better business climate connects many factors — our schools, infrastructure, competitive costs, and quality of life — to one goal: a stronger, more vibrant economy. And, as diverse groups work together on the CT20x17 campaign, we will all be rowing in the same direction.

For now, we must continue to demonstrate how manufacturing can help fuel our economic recovery, and why careers in this sector are both promising and fulfilling for today's employees and future generations to come.

Connecticut can remain a strong manufacturing state if we ensure that we always have the skilled workforce it demands. 

Robert (Bob) Sobolewski is president and CEO of ebm-papst Inc., a Farmington-based manufacturer of fans and blowers.

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