Technical high school system grooms workforce pipeline

July 19, 2016

As the director of human resources for both Carey Manufacturing and Floyd Manufacturing, two Cromwell-based family businesses, Peter Egan sees the big challenge facing the state’s manufacturing sector every day: The need for a pipeline of skilled young people to fill the shoes of an aging workforce.

“I think we lost a generation of people who thought [the state] was losing its manufacturing jobs,” Egan said. “So we have a large gap in skilled, qualified workers in Connecticut.”

But the state seems to have a strategy to reverse that trend, investing millions in education and job training through Connecticut’s technical high school and community college systems to close that gap.

The state’s manufacturing sector is a key driver of Connecticut’s economic activity. While the sector took a hit during the Great Recession, it has rebounded in the state, employing nearly 170,000 people and generating more than $27 billion in activity, according to 2015 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

That has created both short- and long-term demand for workers, which has fueled strong alliances between manufacturers, school systems, workforce development boards and nonprofits across the state.

“One of our primary goals is to build partnerships with business and industry to ensure our programs [and training] are aligned with their needs,” said Dr. Nivea Torres, Superintendent of the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System (CTHSS), which operates 17 technical schools across the state and serves 11,200 full-time high school and adult students and 2,000 apprenticeship pupils.

With state support — a five year, $10 million investment — Torres said, she has been able to expand capabilities and invest in infrastructure that will allow the state’s technical high schools to build a manufacturing pipeline for years to come. She notes each school now features modern machinery to train students for precision manufacturing and advanced design. Students are also learning about energy-saving technologies.

“In partnership with the Connecticut Energy Efficiency and Connecticut Green Bank, our technical high schools developed the nation’s first green construction learning laboratories,” Torres said, “allowing students the opportunity to design, build and operate energy-efficient laboratories at each of our sites and be trained in green technologies.”

The state’s technical high school system has also aggressively developed partnerships. Kim Oliver, director of youth services for Hartford’s Capital Workforce Partners (CWP), one of the state’s five workforce development boards, works closely with the technical high school’s student population. “We serve people ages 14 to 24,” Oliver said, “and work to prepare students and young adults for jobs that can provide a living wage.”

The state’s focus on the manufacturing sector — and the manufacturing certificate programs at many of Connecticut’s community institutions, including Enfield’s Asnuntuk Community College — have been critical in providing a career path for a vulnerable population. “There are 6,300 teens and young adults in Hartford that are out of work or without a high school degree,” Oliver said, noting CWP invests nearly $2 million a year in youth programming in Hartford and New Britain.

The certificate programs not only help to build technical competencies for students, Oliver explained, but also can be used as credit towards an associate’s degree. It’s an approach that’s been drawing people both to community colleges in general and the manufacturing sector in particular. “We have about 200 CWP youth enrolled in the certificate programs and a quarter of those are in manufacturing-focused tracks,” Oliver said.

And it’s not just young adults that are interested. In fact, the Eastern Workforce Investment Board (EWIB) in North Franklin is undertaking efforts to engage middle schoolers envisioning a career path to manufacturing. “We want adolescents to understand what a viable career manufacturing can be,” said Ginny Sampietro, EWIB’s senior director of employment services. “In fact, this summer we have a Young Manufacturer’s Academy to introduce students to manufacturing.”

And that’s just the surface. Mark Hill, EWIB’s chief operating officer, noted that in 2015 his workforce board received a $6 million grant from the Department of Labor to help train — and place in jobs — 450 people over the next three years. “The key to our success has been an engaged community,” Hill said. “We have more than 56 area manufacturers, including Electric Boat, involved [with our organization] and representation from the technical high school system on our board.”

It’s all driving a manufacturing sector that looks primed for future growth, fueled by an increasingly technically trained student population.

Torres says her school system will continue to innovate and possibly branch into other growth areas in Connecticut such as digital media, allied health and biotechnology.

“We want to become the best technical high school system in the nation,” she said. “And we’re well on our way to achieving that goal.”

Click here to read the article on the Hartford Business Journal’s website.