Flanagan Industries in Glastonbury, a manufacturer of turbines for the aerospace and power industries, will pay skilled machinists $25 an hour or more. But company president Kenneth J. Flanagan says he has trouble finding qualified people. Same with machine operators, who can make $18 to $20 an hour.
He's hardly alone. Small and medium-sized manufacturers across the state report the same thing: There are good jobs in manufacturing going begging. Some companies even have to turn down work for lack of workers.
As Mark Twain might have put it, reports of the death of manufacturing in Connecticut have been greatly exaggerated. Although the days when nearly every town had at least one manufacturing specialty - brass products in Waterbury, hats in Danbury, bells in East Hampton, etc. - are long gone and many jobs indeed have been lost, the sector is still alive. Nearly 12 percent of the state's workforce, more than 180,000 people, still work in manufacturing. The average annual wage is $43,000, and is often supplemented with overtime.
You'd think people would be climbing over each other to get these jobs, but they're not. The problem, says Lauren Kaufman of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, is the very perception, or misperception, that manufacturing is dead and has no future.
This idea is so pervasive that with few exceptions, young people aren't being trained for manufacturing jobs or encouraged to pursue them. Parents of youngsters attending the state's 17 technical high schools have steered the students away from the manufacturing technology program.
Part of the problem may be the nature of news coverage. Layoffs or labor disputes at large manufactories tend to draw much more attention than smaller shops adding a few jobs at a time.
However the picture is painted, it isn't accurate. Connecticut retains many new-age manufacturing jobs.
"Today's manufacturing is not the manufacturing our parents knew. It is very high-tech and computerized, so it requires a higher level of competencies. It is clean, unlike the old factories, plus it pays well and has good benefits - it's a great career option. Unfortunately, the word isn't getting out," said Thomas Phillips, president of Capital Workforce Partners, the public-private jobs agency.
His agency, CBIA and a number of other entities including the state's technical schools are scrambling to rebuild an education pathway from high school and college into the manufacturing sector, building on such programs as Asnuntuck Community College's technological studies programs. The community college system also supports the Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing, which promotes manufacturing careers. CBIA held a manufacturing jobs expo last year and has two federal grants to promote training. Students are beginning to come back to the manufacturing programs at the technical high schools.
John Leone, president of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, said his area has lost some major manufacturers but retains myriad smaller shops that make springs, eyelets and plastic products. Elsewhere in the state, skilled workers are making pharmaceuticals, lasers and fuel cells. Your child does not have to become a blackjack dealer to remain in Connecticut.
This problem could get worse before it gets better, because a large number of skilled machinists are Baby Boomers heading for retirement.
Making things better than other people made them is how Connecticut became the richest state in the nation. We still need to do that; we cannot sustain an economy that increasingly revolves around selling houses to each other. That high-tech manufacturing jobs are available must stop being the state's best-kept secret.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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