With the median age of their labor force already topping 50, Connecticut manufacturers are finding that their existing workforce development strategies are not only insufficient to meet their current needs and but without a larger pool of trained workers their expansion plans might be stymied.
One place manufacturers are beginning to look to replenish their aging and retiring workforce is the state’s inner
city schools, an emerging trend that could bode well for the state’s growing Latino population, whose median age is just over 27, or 13 years below the state median, and represents a large percentage of the state’s urban population and, in some cities, an even bigger share of the public school enrollment.
Many Latino students already are entering the workforce pipeline through the diverse and intensive training under way at the state’s community colleges and Connecticut Technical High School System. These programs are conducted with fairly extensive involvement of manufacturers and other sectors of the economy.
“We are meeting manufacturing’s needs now, but the real pressure is on four to five years from now,” said John
Murphy, an education consultant who oversees the system’s manufacturing cluster and meets regularly with
manufacturers and industry associations. “We are one part of the solution but are limited,” Murphy said. “We are more than happy to work with the inner city schools,” he added.
While urban educators welcome any effort to ratchet up employment preparation and career opportunities, they also express caution that support for manufacturing not diminish their efforts to guide students into other areas of higher education.
“We always need to evolve to meet the demands of the economy,” said Miguel Cardona, Meriden’s assistant
superintendent of schools. “If the workplace says it needs people with better skills, it is in our interest to
provide those skills.”
However, Cardona also stressed that helping prepare students for manufacturing careers should not be at the expense of other options for Latino and other minority students. “We need to make sure we provide well-balanced pathways,” said the Meriden educator. “We need to increase the number of students who attend college,” he stressed.
Robert Cotto Jr., the director of urban educational initiatives at Trinity College, said, . “School can definitely be a place where young people learn about careers and how to prepare for them.
However, Cotto, a Hartford native who has been a member of the city’s school board since 2010, added, “I do have concerns about schools narrowly tracking Black and Latino students into any one type of job or career, particularly menial, low-wage work.”
For Cotto, a recent article in Hartford Business stating that manufacturers intend to focus more on inner-city
schools for their workforce, raised a series of questions: “What type of manufacturing jobs will become available
soon? What is the actual shortage? How much will these jobs pay? What are the needed qualifications or training for these jobs? Who should pay for this training – the public, manufacturers, workers, or some combination?”
The type of workers manufacturers need appears to be quite diverse and in some cases is immediate. “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, in the Business Week article.
Clupper said that individual companies have sought to build a labor pool through in-house training programs and 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.
In 2015, about 30 percent of CTHSS’s graduates went directly into the workforce. Several had more than one job offer when they left school with their vocational certificate and diploma.
Generally, manufacturers understand that many of the tech school students are Latino, Murphy said. Moreover, with bilingual help available at the schools having Spanish as a primary language does not seem to be a barrier, he said.
Many Latino students enter the tech school system intending to become skilled in a particular vocation but thanks to the system’s attention to academics about 50 percent of recent graduates go on to college to study a related or a different field.
Cardona is a prime example of this experience. The Meriden native attended a tech school and graduated with
credentials to work in the automotive sector. However, he also had the opportunity to attend college where his major was education and he eventually earned a doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Connecticut.
Cardona said the Meriden schools already has partnerships with the manufacturing sector and offers some innovative programs such as the Personalized Learning Experience which allows students to work architects, engineers and other professionals.
Murphy said there is a “lot of potential” in the city schools to address future workforce needs, but the commitment has to go deeper than it is currently and there needs to be a real partnership with the manufacturing sector. “You need to start at the top, with the superintendents,” he said. Manufacturing leaders “can’t just talk to guidance counselors.
Implementing some of the manufacturing oriented programs can be expensive, Murphy said, and he understands that the city schools have “so much on their plates” when the school budget comes up.
Some technical schools are offering after-school programs that allow regular high school students to access their
classes, Murphy said. This arrangement exists at Bullard Havens Tech in Bridgeport and at Eli Whitney Tech in New Haven and is starting at Godwin Tech.
The relationships and direct involvement of manufacturers with the schools is seen as essential to develop the cadre of trained workers they will need. This currently is fairly extensive at the tech schools, said Murphy. Under state legislation, each school has to set up an advisory committee for each programs with each of the system’s 14 precision machinery department heads held responsible to include local manufacturers on their committees.
One area where manufacturers can help, Murphy said, relates to one the tech schools biggest challenges, finding
enough qualified teachers and mentors. “We need manufacturers to step up to find employees who could be mentors and release them for a few hours each week.”
Murphy said that the manufacturers would like to see more students getting into the pipeline that leads to the middle class. This includes Hispanic students who have a strong work ethic and can be very successful, Murphy said. “They need more opportunities.”