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November 1, 2021

Here's how one CT manufacturer has successfully tackled the industry's workforce shortage

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Carey Manufacturing Inc. CEO Paul Lavoie has been named the state's new chief manufacturing officer.

Machines whirred and clanked on a recent afternoon at Carey Manufacturing Co., as about a dozen employees worked at stations making latches, handles and other products the Cromwell company produces for the military and aerospace sectors and computer devices.

A few years ago Carey was in a difficult position echoed across the rest of Connecticut’s manufacturing industry: a significant number of its most experienced employees were nearing retirement, with no obvious candidates to replace them. But today, the company is fully staffed with 52 workers — about 75% on the manufacturing floor — CEO Paul Lavoie said.

“Anyone who’s interested in a career in the trades, we’re happy to sit down with them,” Lavoie said. “We have a lot of young people here.”

Myriad industries in Connecticut are facing a pandemic-induced workforce shortage, but the dynamic of experienced workers reaching retirement age without a similar number of younger people entering the industry to replace them plagued manufacturing long before COVID-19 deposited a live grenade in the U.S. labor market.

According to a 2020 Connecticut Business & Industry Association survey, 20% of Connecticut manufacturing executives said availability of skilled workers was the main factor hampering their ability to grow, while 48% said they were having a hard time finding and retaining young workers. There are currently about 6,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the state, according to the Department of Labor, and it’s estimated that 11% of the current industry workforce will retire between 2021 and 2024.

Despite the industry’s headwinds, Carey Manufacturing has been able to maintain a full staff through: community engagement to find new employees, a willingness to provide training, and by offering workers more flexibility, Lavoie said.

Community involvement

Forty-year-old Carey Manufacturing is a midsize company that generates about $7 million in annual revenue, according to Lavoie. In 2006 it acquired Amatom Electronic Hardware, which makes hardware that goes into electronic devices. In the early 2000s Carey started outsourcing some of its manufacturing to China, while continuing to make Amatom hardware in Cromwell.

In 2017 the company began reshoring manufacturing back to Connecticut, said Lavoie, who joined Carey as CEO about five years ago. Right now they’re about 80% complete with that process, he said.

A few years before Lavoie came aboard, Carey Manufacturing was using job boards to replace its most experienced staffers who were retiring, but the strategy wasn’t panning out. Sometimes the company would hire six new workers and only two lasted the first month, he said.

“We’re too small to continue that [hiring] model,” Lavoie said. “So we needed to find a different model.”

Instead, the company turned to a strategy pioneered by Human Resources Director Pete Egan that relies heavily on getting out of the factory, forming relationships with educators and doing anything else possible to encourage young people to consider manufacturing as a career.

Lavoie chairs the Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce’s board. A Carey employee sits on the advisory board of East Windsor’s Lincoln Technical Institute. Carey workers are also represented on the boards of the Advanced Manufacturing Employer Partnership, Bristol Technical Advisory Council and many other groups.

Participating in these organizations keeps Carey’s finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the sector, puts the company in direct contact with people who run manufacturing training programs, and regularly results in new employee leads.

“It’s an investment of our time,” Lavoie said. “You could sit there and you could be on job boards … where you’re looking for people, or you could go out there and do good work in the community, and have people call you.”

Succession planning

Another key aspect of Carey’s hiring strategy is training, specifically taking on job candidates who will replace current workers in a year or two, rather than right away. It’s increasingly difficult to come across a mid-career professional looking for a new position, Lavoie said, but hiring a younger employee to work alongside a more experienced one to learn the job before the older worker retires is doable.

In fact, Carey currently employs two toolmakers, even though it only really needs one, Lavoie said. They hired a younger employee to work with a company veteran who’s in his early 70s. By the time the older worker retires, the newer employee will have enough experience to take the reins.

“On the succession planning part of our business, we talk about it on a regular basis,” Lavoie said.

That’s important because the average Carey employee is 51 years old, and 66% of its workers are over 50. Carey will have a significantly younger staff in the years ahead, Lavoie said, as more workers retire and likely get replaced by less experienced recruits.

Those younger workers generally start at about $15 per hour, Lavoie said. Raises are performance-based and can happen as early as six months into employment. The company offers comprehensive health benefits, but Lavoie said Carey isn’t able to offer expansive perks available at large multinational manufacturers.

Meantime, the company also actively works to encourage kids as young as middle school-age to start considering manufacturing as a career, Lavoie said. They never say no when a school group wants a tour, and send employees to represent Carey at job fairs. They also recently participated in a state-backed “externship” program in which they hosted a technical program director from Rockville High School who spent a few days at Carey learning about what skills they should be teaching.

To retain workers, Lavoie has also become a lot more flexible in his employee expectations, he said.

“I had to really look at how I was managing people, and I had to give up a lot of things that I believed,” Lavoie said.

Lavoie was once a stalwart proponent of a stringent Monday-through-Friday, eight- to 10-hour workday, and expected people to show up precisely when their shift began, he said.

He now offers a more flexible work schedule. Employees can take a day off during the week and come in on Saturday when possible. He also doesn’t sweat it as much, if an employee is 10 to 15 minutes late, as long as they are productive.

He’s currently got an engineer on staff who is attending Central Connecticut State University and sets his work schedule around his class schedule; the most important requirement is that he put in 32 hours per week.

“I think a lot of manufacturers are not looking at themselves and saying, ‘OK, how am I going to adapt to the way the worker of today is changing?’ “ Lavoie said. “When it comes to … dealing with the younger generation coming in, the one who had to change the most is me.”

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