Connecticut is struggling to get the word out about high-paying, high-tech manufacturing jobs in the state.
Local, state and federal lawmakers are working to revive Connecticut’s industrial base after a half-century of decline. It seems like at least once a week, a state or federal official is touting a new effort to bring industry back to Connecticut.
While there are fewer manufacturing jobs today than there were 10 years ago, there’s a slow trend towards growth.
But Gen Z — now entering the workforce — came of age as many industrial properties sat vacant in dozens of the state’s towns and cities. There is a lack of awareness about career opportunities in the manufacturing sector.
Without an influx of workers from the next generation, Connecticut will fall short of meeting the projected annual workforce demand from the state’s growing advanced manufacturing companies.
Jobs in Connecticut’s manufacturing industry are about half of what they were in the sector’s heyday.
In the 1950s, half of all jobs in the state were in the manufacturing sector (while nationally the figure stood at 34%). Connecticut’s manufacturing workforce peaked in 1967 at nearly 480,000 jobs.
Today, fewer than 160,000 people work in manufacturing in Connecticut, accounting for less than 10% of the workforce. That’s slightly higher than the national figure of 8.4%.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Connecticut had recorded 24 consecutive months of manufacturing job growth, albeit modest, over a period from 2017 to 2019.
Manufacturing enjoyed a positive reputation for much of the mid-20th century, but by the late 1990s and early 2000s, that was shifting.
Union membership had declined. Young people were increasingly turned off by what they perceived as dirty, dangerous and grueling careers in a field with few opportunities for growth. Comprehensive high schools eliminated technical skills instruction.
Today, many K-12 students don’t personally know adults who work in the field.
With a much smaller cohort among Generation X and Millennials, Connecticut’s manufacturing workforce skews older. More than one-third of the industry’s workers are over age 55, compared to around 27% across all sectors, according to the state labor department.
Policymakers have homed in on manufacturing because increased factory production often leads to “multiplier effects” — that is, increased activity in related sectors, like the companies that source materials or provide services to the manufacturing business.
If Connecticut helps boost the workforce at Groton-based submarine manufacturer Electric Boat, for example, that has the potential to drive up business for all of the company’s local suppliers.
Economic development leaders looking to recruit businesses to Connecticut also say the state’s existing high-tech manufacturing operations and highly skilled industry workforce provide key competitive advantages over other states.
Tens of millions of dollars in state and federal funding, much of it matched by private sector contributions, have gone into an array of education and training programs to funnel Connecticut workers into manufacturing jobs.
Since 2014, the state’s Manufacturing Innovation Fund has supported a range of programs from career activities for K-12 students to “pre-apprenticeships” and funding for tuition, books and transportation for high school students taking college-level courses in manufacturing.
The state supports training programs in technical and comprehensive high schools, colleges and universities, the correctional system and online. The city of Hartford recently announced the creation of two “walk-in Community Manufacturing Training Centers.”
And a portion of federal funds under the American Rescue Plan is slated for a new short-term job-training program dubbed CareerConneCT — modeled after one of Connecticut’s most successful training programs, the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board’s “Manufacturing Pipeline,” which offers tuition-free technical instruction for people seeking jobs at Electric Boat and other advanced manufacturing companies in the region.
Tuition for advanced manufacturing training programs is either partially or fully subsidized, and many companies offer reimbursement for employees who go back to school for higher education degrees.
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To many young adults facing years of crippling student loan payments, the option to graduate debt-free with lots of lucrative job options could be enticing.
Plus, manufacturing jobs here pay well above the average salary statewide, according to a recent analysis by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.
The work itself is also far more technologically advanced than it used to be — increasingly so in Connecticut.
The onset of new digital technologies in the industry has been referred to as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” involving internet-connected machines, robots, quantum computing and artificial intelligence.
The state’s large aerospace and defense manufacturers require a high level of precision from the parts-makers in their supply chains. And the multimillion-dollar 3D printers, grinders and other computer-based machines require specialized training.
Some in Gen Z say they like the work and enjoy working with these advanced technologies.
Erica E. Phillips is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (ctmirror.org). Copyright 2022 © The Connecticut Mirror.