Connecticut lags far behind other states in providing manufacturers with the skilled workers they need, in spite of the fact that thousands of jobs in the state are going begging
By Daniel D'Ambrosio
April 16, 2008
Some officials are concerned that Connecticut can't compete with other states when it comes to training workers and luring companies here. And that training gap affects the state's fiscal forecast.
As director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Fred Carstensen is worried about the state’s economic future in general, and what he considers to be a "very weak" system of community colleges in particular.
The state’s 12 community colleges, says Carstensen, are not sufficiently focused on working with the business community to fill the pipeline with the semi-skilled workers all businesses need — the non-management jobs. "Your work force has to be holistic," said Carstensen. "You not only have to have the researcher, you have to have the lab tech.
Someone who knows how to handle vials in the lab. The right hand of research scientists. We don’t have that capacity." Other states are very aggressive in tailoring their community colleges to the needs of potential employers, according to Carstensen. He cites the example of the BMW plant that was built in Spartanburg, S.C. in 1993, pumping billions of dollars into that state’s economy, including $4.9 billion for salaries alone through 2007. BMW makes the X5 Sports Activity Vehicle, X6 Sports Activity Coupe, Z4 Roadster, Z4 Coupe, and M Coupe at the Spartanburg plant, and soon will begin making the X3 Sports Activity Vehicle there. "South Carolina persuaded BMW that when their factory opened, the workers with the right skill sets would be lined up," said Carstensen. "The state would work with BMW to create a BMW curriculum in its community colleges. It has been enormously successful."
Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor for the board of trustees for community colleges in Connecticut, said the same kind of effort South Carolina made is now in full swing in Alabama, where they’re getting "an enormous influx of German companies coming in there." Not surprisingly, Cox says it comes down to money, at least in part. "The state of Connecticut does not have the same kind of funding mechanism in place that provides for training to attract businesses to the state," she said. "In South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina and other states, mostly in the South, they set aside money for incentives for companies to come and the state provides training for employees. We don’t have that." In Connecticut, Cox said she does work with the state Department of Economic and Community Development to attract businesses to the state, and there is the option to work with the community colleges to develop specific training programs, but the company has to foot the bill for those programs. "There is no funding, the companies have to pay for it, so if they’re looking at a competing proposal from another state they’re going to take the best economic deal they can get, including paying for training," Cox said
In 1996, Cox brought the former governor of North Carolina, Bob Scott, to speak to the Education Committee of the General Assembly, which was considering a bill to strengthen the link between the community colleges and job training. "He was very knowledgeable on government and higher education," said Cox of Scott. "He made a wonderful presentation." Part of that presentation was the sobering number of businesses and jobs that had migrated from Connecticut to North Carolina as a result of North Carolina’s aggressive stance toward providing training. In Virginia, said Cox, they’re willing to pay for training for companies that are providing as few as 80 new jobs. Today, Scott is chancellor of North Carolina’s community college system. "Legislation passed as a result (of Scott’s presentation) to encourage business to use the community college system in Connecticut," Cox said. "They would be considered the provider of first choice for education for business and economic development."
There was only one catch. There was no special funding behind the legislation. Instead, Cox said community colleges have been trying to get as much federal funding as possible for training programs, including a $2.16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor that was awarded on March 11. The money will be used to train as estimated 750 students for "careers in industries such as precision manufacturing and aerospace components manufacturing," according to a press release.
"It’s a question of a very tight [state] budget," said Cox. "But I think we’re starting to see the close connection between jobs and education to work force development to economic development and to the state’s prosperity. We have to invest in higher education because that’s what provides a skilled work force." Ironically, says Lauren Kaufman, vice-president for education and training policy for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, companies in the state are crying out for that skilled work force. "We have manufacturers all over this region desperately looking for skilled people," said Kaufman. "People do not realize how many high-wage, high-skilled jobs are going begging now. There are literally thousands."
The state’s aerospace manufacturing sector in particular is booming, according to Kaufman. "Aerospace companies have more work than they can handle," she said. "They’re running second and third shifts and can’t find people." Up and down the I-91 corridor, biomedical manufacturers that export their products all over the world "are having to turn down orders and work because they don’t have qualified people," said Kaufman. Whether in the aerospace or biomedical fields, what all these high-paying manufacturing jobs share is a requirement to run very sophisticated equipment driven by computer controls relying on statistical analysis. "Today you have to have very strong math and computer skills," said Kaufman. And in general, we don’t. Community colleges in Connecticut are spending an inordinate amount of time trying to make up for what high schools failed to teach, according to Kaufman. Instead of training students to join the work force, community colleges find themselves doing remediation work, teaching developmental math and English to as many as 80 percent of the freshman in some classes.
"We need to get the job done at high school, not having colleges fix all that learning that didn’t happen in high school," said Kaufman. Kaufman agrees with both Carstensen and Cox that Connecticut is falling short of the efforts of other states when it comes to attracting new businesses, and expanding existing businesses, and that community colleges have a major role to play in those efforts. "We don’t really have strong funding mechanisms in the state when you’re trying to attract a company or a company is expanding," said Kaufman. "There is no trigger to immediately set up a training program." Starting on June 4, and ending on June 5, the CBIA is sponsoring a job fair at the Connecticut Expo Center they’re calling "Manufacture Your Future," at which manufacturers from across the state will set up virtual facilities with real equipment to show what they do and how they do it.
"We want to show the whole career path, everything from entry level jobs to engineering jobs," said Kaufman, who is expecting up to 3,500 students to attend. The job fair, in its second year, is a start, but the state has a long way to go to match a state like Virginia, says Carstensen. When Nestle, the giant multinational food company, was looking for a place to open a new facility to manufacture bottled water, administrators at a community college in Richmond, Va., took company officials into a large, empty hall where they offered to install the company’s equipment and train students to use it. The students would be "100 percent ready" to walk into Nestle’s new factory and go to work.
"They were blown away," said Carstensen of Nestle executives. "Nothing in Connecticut is close to that responsiveness. That’s what community colleges are there for."