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September 20, 2019

To lure younger workers, manufacturers seek to bridge the perception-reality divide

PHOTO | New Haven Biz Kids these days: NHMA panelists (l-r) Ulbrich, Greene, Carey, Lucas and Dacey in Stratford Thursday.

Among Connecticut manufacturers it has become axiomatic that workforce development is the key to the survival and long-term sustainability of the industry.

And as a generation of skilled toolmakers, machine operators and engineers hurtles toward retirement, manufacturing executives understand that attracting, recruiting and training younger workers is a matter of the utmost urgency.

On Thursday the New Haven Manufacturers Association convened a panel of young professionals in the manufacturing industry to discuss what drew them to the industry as a career choice, as well as how to cultivate others of their peer group to follow them.

Most of the panelists were drawn to manufacturing careers more from family ties than industry sex appeal. Moderator Wes Ulbrich of Ulbrich Stainless Steels & Special Metals is the fourth generation of his family to helm the North Haven manufacturing company his great-grandfather Fred launched in 1924.

Similarly, Allison Greene of BYK USA in Wallingford, Alison Carey of Carey Manufacturing in Cromwell and Alexander Dacey of Bridgeport’s Amodex all followed parents and/or siblings into the business. 

Henry Lucas was a graduate of the Advanced Manufacturing Program at Housatonic Community College that led to a tool-and-die apprenticeship with Milford manufacturer Bead Industries (also a family business — just not Lucas’ family).

Since Lucas arrived at Bead fresh from school he has been mentored by a number of 50-and-older tool-and-die workers who passed along not just a skill set for a job, but an understanding and appreciation for an occupation that could become a rewarding lifelong career path.

“They saw their profession dying out,” Lucas explained, “and they wanted to pass it on.”

That species of hands-on, shop-floor indoctrination may appear as an anomaly to a generation weaned on smartphones and social media. On the plus side, however, new workforce members in their 20s and 30s grew up as sponges for information — which makes many of them fast and eager learners.

“There’s a stereotype that millennials change jobs every two years,” said BYK’s Greene, who earned a doctorate in chemistry before coming to work for the additives and instruments manufacturer. “I don’t think that’s true — if there’s room for them to grow” their careers within the company.

Transparency is key, Greene added — younger workers want a window on their company’s big picture, to see how their day-to-day toils contribute to the common goal. 

Ulbrich noted his company’s open-door policy. “Every door is open to [workers] to come in and ask any question.”

Carey said that millennial workers as a group value both flexibility and the ability to safeguard their individuality. So Carey Manufacturing accommodates workers’ individual life schedules with flexible work hours. “We don’t care what hours you work — as long as you work your hours.”

Sharing information is key to nurturing and retaining younger workers. Amodex has a daily staff meeting at 9:30 a.m. — ”even if it’s just 30 seconds,” explained Darcy, who heads the company’s sales and marketing.

“For many workers in the older generation, success was commuting to Manhattan every day and not having a life outside of their careers,” said Dacey. Not so for his millennial peers in the workplace. There’s more to life than that.

“If it makes you happy,” Dacey said, “it’s a good place to be.”

Manufacturing Career Fair

In other manufacturing news, the Quinnipiac Chamber of Commerce will host its second annual Manufacturing Career Fair Saturday at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford. The event, which will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., features more than two dozen exhibitors, workshops and information sessions. Admission is free, but pre-registration is “encouraged.” Visit here or phone 203-269-9891.

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