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October 12, 2015

Manufacturing looks to inner-city schools for workforce

PHOTO | Pablo Robles Anthony Byers (right), co-executive director of Hartford Youth Scholars, works with Trinity College student Francisco Chang, on his coursework, as part of the nonprofit's program to prepare Hartford students for success in college and their careers.
PHOTO | Pablo Robles Francisco Chang, student at Trinity College, participates in the Hartford Youth Scholars program.
Thomas Phillips, president and CEO, Capital Workforce Partners
Lyle Wray, executive director, Capital Region Council of Governments (CRCOG)
Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, superintendent, Hartford Public Schools

To replace its aging and retiring workforce, Connecticut manufacturers must find an untapped cache of younger workers, and workforce development professionals say urban schools offer the best solution.

Connecticut's cities — Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, New London and Bridgeport — have significantly younger populations than the suburbs or rural areas, offering a potentially large supply of workers to fill in gaps left by an industry with one of the oldest workforces in the state, said Thomas Phillips, president and CEO of Capital Workforce Partners in Hartford.

“We are just not leveraging it as a concerted effort, and we should start,” Phillips said.

Manufacturing takes top priority because the median age of its workforce is more than 50 and the industry is gearing up for a significant production increase. The industry can be attractive because it provides a high living wage even to workers without advanced degrees, said Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capital Region Council of Governments (CRCOG).

With $27 billion in annual economic output, manufacturing is the third largest sector of the Connecticut economy, placing heightened importance on the need to groom a next-generation workforce, Wray said.

“We have a lot at stake here,” Wray said.

Meantime, schools and educational assistance groups would like to set up better relationships and more programming with the state's key industries, including manufacturing, but those efforts remain in their infancy.

“We have been trying to pull off a job-shadowing [program] in manufacturing, but we haven't been able to do that yet,” said Anthony Byers, co-executive director of the nonprofit Hartford Youth Scholars Foundation, which prepares Hartford area students for college.

Silver tsunami

In 10 years, 35 percent of Connecticut's population will be aged 55 or older, according to the Connecticut Economic Resource Center, leaving more workers heading into retirement. Connecticut is now the seventh oldest state in the nation, with a median age of 40.6.

The aging workforce is a major issue for manufacturers because companies already can't find workers for open positions, including jobs that require minimal or advanced skills or advanced degrees like engineering, said Jerry Clupper, executive director of the New Haven Manufacturers Association.

Individual companies have tried to come up with their own solutions by developing in-house training programs, Clupper said, and the industry, through organizations like NHMA, Capital Workforce Partners and the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, has begun working with mid-career development centers, community colleges and the state's technical high schools to develop curricula so graduates have the necessary skills needed by Connecticut's manufacturers.

“While we are making headway, the needs are still bigger than these programs are able to turn out,” Clupper said.

While Connecticut is aging, its urban populations are the youngest in the state: New Haven has an average population age of 29.3 — the youngest in Connecticut outside of the college towns of Willimantic and Storrs — while Hartford, Waterbury, New London and Bridgeport all average 35 years or younger, according to demographic researcher Zip Atlas.

Much of that youth comes from the minority populations: The median age of a black Connecticut resident is 31.4, while Hispanics' median age is 27.4, according to census data.

While working with community college and technical high schools, manufacturers and workforce development professionals really haven't sought out these urban and minority populations as much as they should, Phillips said.

“We need to develop a pipeline for urban kids to get into these programs,” Phillips said.

Capital Workforce Partners, CRCOG, CBIA and other groups like the MetroHartford Alliance need to get the ball rolling on programming by first sitting down with all the key stakeholders and starting the conversation, Phillips said.

The MetroHartford Alliance held a recent meeting with the superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, to discuss this talent pipeline and how education should be framed around industry needs and potential employment for graduates.

Hartford Public Schools doesn't focus on specific industries in its curriculum and prefers its students to develop their own career paths, said Schiavino-Narvaez. Students can choose from 17 different high school options catering to their interests and develop success plans that lay out their academic, social and workforce needs.

Those high school options include the Pathways Academy of Technology & Design magnet school in East Hartford, which offers a curriculum for students interested in manufacturing.

“That particular program should produce students ready for manufacturing careers,” Schiavino-Narvaez said.

Schiavino-Narvaez said she would like employers to be more involved in the schools, particularly the city's internship program for 11th graders, which seeks to place students at companies around the region.

Having more exposure to different careers like manufacturing helps students realize the career opportunities, said Byers, who runs the college preparation nonprofit. This includes internships and job shadowing but also involves something as simple as an industry leader speaking to a group of students.

“We are always looking to partner with folks,” Byers said. “Tons of students would be interested in the manufacturing field.”

Key to success

Capital Workforce Partners and CRCOG started thinking about this new urban effort after receiving a study from the UMass Donahue Institute in Hadley, Mass., showing what small- and medium-sized businesses in central Connecticut thought about the region's business atmosphere and potential.

The results showed manufacturing's overwhelming importance to the region and the need to have a strong workforce to maximize production, Wray said.

“The vast majority of these businesses really treat skilled workers as a make-or-break for their businesses,” Wray said.

The results complimented earlier findings from a February study on advanced manufacturing in New England by Deloitte that recommended creating better and more comprehensive educational pathways for advanced-manufacturing education.

Better education, though, starts with making sure students are getting the basic level of education they need in areas like math, science and computers, which employers complain that new hires often lack, said Ann Harrison, spokeswoman for the Workforce Alliance, a workforce development agency serving 30 towns in Greater New Haven.

Then, programming from manufacturers, community colleges and technical high schools can build upon that, Harrison said.

“Once you get in the door, you have to have the right skills to perform on the job,” Harrison said. “That is true for youth. That is true for mid-career folks. That is true for older workers. That is true for everybody.”

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