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January 8, 2024 Industry Outlook | Manufacturing

For manufacturers, workforce, technology and supply chain resilience are focus areas in 2024

HBJ PHOTO | SKYLER FRAZER Selim Noujaim, executive vice president of Noujaim Tool Co., provides a tour of the Waterbury manufacturer’s shop floor.

The U.S. is expected to have 2.1 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2030, according to a recent analysis by consulting and accounting firm Deloitte.

To no one’s surprise, workforce development will continue to be a major focus area in 2024 for Connecticut manufacturers, which reported about 9,000 job openings in September, according to the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.

Supply chain management and developing and leveraging new technologies, including artificial intelligence, will also be focus areas in the year ahead.

Here are some manufacturing industry trends to watch in 2024.

Developing a workforce pipeline

Selim G. Noujaim, executive vice president of Waterbury-based Noujaim Tool Co., said workers were in high demand in 2023, forcing companies to poach talent from each other.

As a result, companies have had to increase wages.

Noujaim said his company, which makes fixtures, tools and precision parts for defense, medical and automotive industries, had a particularly challenging time finding precision toolmakers.

Chris DiPentima

The labor shortage began before the COVID-19 pandemic, following years of little or no population growth in the state, said Chris DiPentima, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.

That has changed in the past two years, with Connecticut experiencing a net increase of 57,000 residents in 2022, according to U.S. Census data.

Increasing the state’s population, both by recruiting out-of-staters and encouraging recent high school and college graduates to stay, will be a point of emphasis in 2024, DiPentima said, and initiatives focused on housing development, tax reductions and affordability can help with those efforts.

“We have a huge workforce development system in Connecticut, and we have the demand on the other side of the system, but we just don’t have the bodies or the people going into it,” DiPentima said. “The focus this (legislative) session will certainly be around attracting people to Connecticut and keeping people in Connecticut, and a lot of that is about affordability.”

Career training programs at high schools, vocational schools and colleges remain key hiring avenues, DiPentima said, but manufacturers will need to seek out alternatives. Individuals who were formerly incarcerated, for example, are an often-untapped employment option.

Paul Lavoie, Connecticut’s chief manufacturing officer, said workforce engagement and career opportunity-related collaboration between the private sector and high schools, trade schools and universities will continue to be a point of emphasis for the state.

Automation, AI and new technology

New technology can also be used to mitigate some worker shortages, industry experts said.

Paul S. Lavoie

Lavoie said industrial automation is something he expects to see more companies adopt in 2024.

“We are not going to hire our way out of our workforce shortages — there are not enough people. We need to invest in industrial automation and develop programs that accelerate the adoption of industry 4.0 technologies in the manufacturing sector,” Lavoie said.

DiPentima said companies such as Milford-based Athletic Brewing and Bigelow Tea in Fairfield have implemented automation technologies for their shipping and handling logistical needs. Those investments allow manufacturers to upskill workers who would typically handle those jobs.

“This is turning to technology when you can’t find the people, and figuring out where the technology helps you create that additional capacity,” DiPentima said. “Then, you’re able to upskill those people, who move to higher-level jobs that pay them more money with better benefits. It’s a win-win all around.”

Clive Cunliffe

Clive Cunliffe is the president of Pietro Rosa Group North America, parent company of Famington-based New England Airfoil Products (NEAP), which makes precision parts and tools used in aerospace and other industries.

Cunliffe said the digital transformation in manufacturing, such as the seamless linkage and sharing of information between machines and production lines, is “undeniable” and important.

“With a substantial talent pool and home to one of the big three aero-engine manufacturers, Connecticut’s manufacturing environment is not only renowned but also characterized by higher operational costs,” he said. “Consequently, achieving and sustaining efficiencies becomes paramount for success.”

Pietro Rosa in 2022 purchased AI-based knowledge management company R-Tree Technologies, and is implementing the company’s technology in its subsidiary businesses internationally, including at New England Airfoil Products.

R-Tree uses a company’s data, research and other knowledge sources to create a searchable and all-encompassing database that can generate quick answers to specific employee questions.

Noujaim said cybersecurity is a growing concern for manufacturers, and creates an added cost of doing business.

Supply chain management

Supply chain resilience is also a major focus area coming out of the pandemic, experts said.

“Achieving supply chain visibility, resilience and control is more difficult than ever,” Cunliffe said. “The geopolitical landscape that exists today, along with commercial travel increasing to near pre-pandemic levels, combine to give a bow-wave of requirements that the industry is struggling to satisfy. Our industry is very susceptible to a wide range of technical challenges, changes and the use of exotic materials, which makes meticulous planning and constant vigilance essential to mitigate the substantial risk of supply chain breakdowns.”

Lavoie said shortening supply chains, sometimes through vertical integration, is crucial.

“A big lesson learned from the pandemic is that a wide-ranging supply chain is difficult to manage,” he said. “We will see reshoring activity, manufacturers looking to do business with other Connecticut manufacturing companies and vertical integration investments that move key component manufacturing in-house.”

In collaboration with manufacturing consultant firm CONNSTEP, the state this year launched the CONNEX Connecticut online database as a way to connect local and U.S. manufacturers with potential suppliers and customers. More than 500 manufacturers across the country have registered with the database, said CBIA’s DiPentima.

“It’s about connecting all levels of the supply chain together, and making people aware of the 4,000-plus manufacturers that we have in Connecticut and all the capabilities that they have,” DiPentima said. “This opportunity to buy local and control your supply chain is much better because it’s easy to just jump in a car, drive up and visit someone, than getting on a video with them or going on an airplane.”

Check out the rest of HBJ's 2024 economic forecast issue

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