Young Latinos – The Key to Helping the 'Brass City' Thrive Again?


It’s an all-too-familiar sight in New England cities: massive, abandoned factories that, during a better time for American business, housed some of the country’s greatest success stories. Some economists posit that American industry is poised for a possible return to its former glory, and one Connecticut legislator wants to make sure that Waterbury – once a hub of profitable manufacturing businesses – and its Latino residents, are part of the anticipated and much hoped for renaissance.
State Rep. Victor Cuevas (D-Waterbury), sees the area’s younger Latino population as the perfect fit to fill the manufacturing hole in the city.  Nearly one third of Waterbury’s population, the fifth largest city in the state, constitutes Latinos. With strength in numbers, nearly 35,000, the city’s Latinos make up a natural workforce for the open jobs manufacturers currently have not been able to fill due to the lack of skilled workers. What’s more, 45 percent of the Waterbury school district is classified as Hispanic, who can be directed towards jobs in the manufacturing industry.
“The overall vibrancy of manufacturing has definitely left Waterbury as it has in other historically industrial cities in Connecticut,” Cuevas said.  “However, with the transition to a technology and service oriented economy, today’s work force is far different than in the 60s and 70s. Small, specifically driven manufacturing is starting to come back in our district.”
Waterbury, known as “the Brass City”, employed 50,000 brass workers at its peak after World War II. By the 1980s, it employed fewer than 5,000. Cuevas sees Latinos leading the way to revive the city’s manufacturing industry and grow those numbers once again.
According to a 2011 study by the Boston Consulting Group, “Made In America, Again”, America was one of a few countries left undamaged after World War II and produced 40 percent of the world’s manufactured goods in the 1950s. That dominance ebbed in the following decades as reconstructed Europe and Japan flooded the market with import goods. American industry rebounded in the 1990s and parts of the country emerged as a leader in the microprocessor, aerospace, software and pharmaceutical industries.
However, Waterbury fell victim to the national decline starting in the late 1950s.
Cuevas named Naugatuck Valley Community College’s small manufacturing school, created for the 2012-2013 academic year, as an example of a positive addition in the mission to help Latinos enter the modern workforce with skills that are fit for high-paying, high-tech manufacturing jobs.
The school is following proposed legislation supported by Cuevas, which would require input from local manufacturers in developing manufacturing technology programs at community and technical colleges to facilitate targeted workforce development. Per the bill, different areas of the state would focus on skills relevant to the manufacturing industries in their areas.
A public hearing for the proposed bill was held last February, where several advocates for the manufacturing industry spoke in its favor.
“My membership wants to hire these students, we just want to make the transition from NVCC Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center to our local workforce seamless,” Cyndi Zoldy, Executive Director of the Smaller Manufacturers Association of Connecticut, wrote in a letter to the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.
Douglas Johnson, Secretary/Treasurer of the SMA and vice president of a Cheshire manufacturing company, echoed her sentiments. In his letter submitted to the committee, he claimed that 91 percent of manufacturers struggle to hire qualified workers, according to a survey by One Voice.
The lack of qualified talent, paired with an anticipated sales boosts in 2013, have manufacturers worried about sustaining the positive growth, he wrote. By communicating with area schools like NVCC, cities like Waterbury could thrive again.
The need is there, and it now up to students to fill that void.
And, considering the finely-honed skill sets needed for today’s industry jobs, that is a wise choice for Latinos and other students, said Peter Gioia, an economist at the Connecticut Business Industry Association.
“There aren’t really any entry-level, unskilled workers in industry anymore,” Gioia said. He added, however, that a growth in industry might not necessarily translate to a growth in jobs. Therefore, Latinos must train and fight for those coveted and well-paying positions.
“Manufacturing is more automated now, which means there are fewer, although better-paying, jobs,” he said.
Economically, the major factor that will contribute to Connecticut’s and the country’s rising manufacturing sector will be the continuing decline of business relationships with China, which has historically provided cheap labor and an unvarying currency that U.S. companies have used to great effect to wring the most profits out of their operations, Gioia said.
But the last decade has seen a shift away from a China workforce that has companies disillusioned by slowly rising Chinese labor costs and a comparatively lower quality of workmanship, he said. Gioia referenced the “Made in America Again” study, which asserts that U.S. industry will make a tremendous rebound within the next five years, primarily due to the move away from a Chinese workforce.
When the wave of returning opportunities hits the city, Latinos should be equipped and ready to rebuild Waterbury’s reputation as the center of the U.S. brass industry.
(Photo by Saad Faruque via Flickr)