Experts hope manufacturing mind-set shift draws workers

Manufacturing has already changed; now it is time for attitudes toward careers in the field to change.

That was one of the recurring themes of a Manufacturers Roundtable held this week at the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce office. About 30 people — including representatives from local manufacturers, Danbury Public Schools and local nonprofit organizations — attended the event.

“It’s a mind-set change that’s coming,” state Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said. “There are people who are well-suited for a four-year degree and there are people who aren’t. People can do very well without a four-year degree.”

McLachlan suggested that some scholarships should be directed toward students pursuing advanced manufacturing training instead of those going to four-year universities.

Terance Cunningham, director of Adult and Continuing Education in Danbury, said high school students need more options that allow them to “get into careers quicker and become financially stable.” He said he is a proponent of steering students into manufacturing.

“I don’t think people know what manufacturing is anymore,” he said. “They need to see it and have a hands-on experience. That exposure is critical.”

Scott Farrell, assistant director of admissions at Naugatuck Valley Community College, suggested externships for teachers to familiarize themselves with today’s manufacturing facilities. Many teachers go straight from college to the classroom and do not know how much the industry has changed.

Parents, too, need to change their perception of manufacturing, said Marcy McDonald of Memry, a Bethel-based medical equipment manufacturer. She said she invites parents of prospective employees to the job interviews. Parents need to see manufacturing jobs are not dirty or dangerous, but rather high-tech positions with growth potential.

“Parents need to realize that manufacturing isn’t the old manufacturing,” she said.

McDonald is also frustrated by the mentality that all students must have a four-year degree in order to succeed. She said there aren’t enough entry-level workers coming out of high schools like Henry Abbott Tech in Danbury because the students are being pushed toward attending universities.

The mind-set shift can’t come soon enough for many Connecticut-based manufacturers. Another recurring theme at the roundtable was a lack of skilled workers to fill job openings. State economists have also harped on the lack of skilled advanced manufacturing workers in the state.

“We can’t find enough people and our hiring needs are huge,” said Peter Riffel of ASML, a Wilton-based nanotechnology company. “One of the challenges we continue to have is finding talent. Our need is much greater than the supply.”

Riffle said ASML had positions open in engineering, R&D, logistics and advanced manufacturing.

McDonald added: “We always have jobs.”

The sentiment was repeated several times. “It’s definitely a challenge to find people to fill the positions,” said Gina Bendlin of Belimo, a Danbury-based manufacturer of HVAC components.

She said the company recently hired two people from Abbott Tech.

Joseph DeFeo, director of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at Naugatuck Valley Community College, moderated the discussion. He, too, stressed the need for training people for advanced manufacturing careers. The tech center at his school has a 100 percent placement rate, he said.

“Manufacturing is hot throughout the state and country. There are probably more jobs than people to fill them. There are a lot of positions, but people need the right skills,” he said. “At least at this point, you’re guaranteed a job coming from our program.”

DeFeo said a legislative shift in 2012 started to turn around the fortunes of manufacturing in Connecticut. Recognizing that manufacturing companies were fleeing the state because of the lack of skilled workers and unfriendly business environment, lawmakers in Hartford started programs to train workers in advanced manufacturing. One of the measures taken was the creation of four advanced manufacturing training centers, including the one at NVCC.

The NVCC program expanded into Danbury in 2015 thanks to a $1.7 million federal grant, DeFeo said. The Danbury program, held at Abbott Tech, trains incumbent workers. The program recently received another boost from a $150,000 donation from Danbury-based industrial gas company Praxair.

Another program, College Connections, offers high school juniors and seniors training and experience in manufacturing. After graduation, students may attend a four-year college, continue training in advanced manufacturing or enter the workforce.

“We’re seeing incremental steps in legislation,” McLachlan said. “It’s moving in the right direction.”

The writer may be reached at; 203-731-3338