Workforce Alliance-Housatonic College partnership aims at 100 percent placement for manufacturing grads

By Kevin Zimmerman

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 A partnership between Workforce Alliance and the Advanced Manufacturing Center at Housatonic Community College is advancing toward its goal of placing all of HCC’s manufacturing students at companies around the state with funding from a U.S. visa program for employers importing foreign workers to do specialized jobs.

This past spring, 20 of 35 HCC manufacturing graduates were placed in full-time employment using an on-the-job training incentive program through Workforce Alliance — an improvement over 2015’s placement of 16 out of 35 grads. The program uses grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Labor and administered by the New Haven-based Workforce Alliance, eliminating costs to job candidates and employers alike.

“It’s headache-free for employers,” said Gene LaPorta. outreach coordinator at the Advanced Manufacturing Center at HCC. “It’s simple and straightforward, and quite a few manufacturers take advantage of the opportunity repeatedly.”

One such manufacturer is McMellon Bros. Inc. in Stratford, which supplies “flight safety critical” threaded parts to the American aerospace industry.

“We have a lot of employees with 30-plus years who are now retiring,” said Rory M. Miller, vice president and mechanical engineer at the company. “About five years ago we began looking for experienced employees, but it was difficult to find anybody.”

Following an abortive experience with Platt Technical High School in Milford — “They were great kids, but they were high school students who’d come in and do internships and then head off to college,” Miller said — McMellon learned of the Housatonic program.

“We started out a couple of years ago with one intern who came in every Friday,” Miller recalled. “That worked out really well, and after he graduated he went to full-time. He’s now operating a lathe.”

A similar result occurred with another intern-to-full-timer in 2014, who now operates a computer numerical controlled lathe. Two more HCC grads were brought on as interns in May and are in the process of learning the basics of how McMellon does business.

Funding for the jobs program comes from the federal government’s H1B visa program, said Workforce Alliance Executive Director William Villano. The H1B is a non-immigrant visa that allows U.S. companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise in specialized fields. If an employer wants to bring in a foreign national because he can’t find a suitable American worker, he pays a fee for the visa, with a portion of that money going to the Department of Labor to reinvest for competitive grants to help train American workers for those jobs.

“We partnered with the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board about 4 1/2 years ago to develop grants for people — mostly the long-term unemployed and recent graduates — in the IT, advanced manufacturing and engineering areas,” Villano said. “As part of that, the HCC connection was made.”

La Porta said he met a Workforce Alliance employee at a 2013 meeting of the New Haven Manufacturers Association. “I was trying to make contacts with employers for internships for students. We ended up agreeing that it would be great to get the class signed up and their eligibility determined, so we could make them [students] more attractive to potential employees.”

Victoria Gelpke, a business service specialist at Workforce Alliance who oversees the program with La Porta, said she usually visits Housatonic early in the graduating class’s last semester to determine their eligibility and collect information about the type of manufacturer they might be best suited for.

“Gene and I then tour the southwest region primarily to meet with businesses, get their take on internships and ultimately try to place them fulltime,” she said.

Gelpke added that the process is “very streamlined,” usually involving a one-page contract stating a given job’s parameters, wage and reimbursement for participating employer.

Still, Villano said, “Some employers are skeptical — they think we’re a government program with lots of bureaucracy involved.”

He noted that employers typically are looking for something very specific: “Someone who’s worked on a particular machine for a particular type of job. But when they realize they can get reimbursed for on-the-job training, it relieves those concerns to a degree.”

Those financial incentives helped convince Richard Rosselli, president of Northeast Laser in Monroe, to give the program a chance. Rosselli credited Lori-Lynn Chatlos, a Department of Labor business consultant at the Bridgeport American Job Center, with introducing him to La Porta. “We’ve brought in three graduates over the last couple of years,” he said, “all as interns who have become permanent employees.”

At Northeast, which provides laser processing and finishing services for a wide range of industries, people who have had at least some relevant experience “have the skills and motivation that we’re looking for,” Rosselli said. “They need some technical training but are usually ready to go after that.”

“The skills are usually there,” Miller agreed. “It’s just a matter of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. They’ve gone through a three-semester program (at HCC), so they’ve already shown the drive and desire to be in that field and already know what’s expected of them. These are not people who need to be reminded to wear safety equipment or to show up on time.”

“The manufacturing process is different from company to company, so there’s always some investment in on-the-job training,” La Porta said. While he said the partnership’s first year was “a little rocky,” he’s now confident that word is spreading fast.

“I had a company we’d worked with the past two years come in right after Thanksgiving to ask if we still had the program — they wanted to get started that early,” he said. “Part of my gig is to make sure everyone gets a job, and it’s getting a little easier all the time. Manufacturers in this state are kind of a cloistered group, so we encourage them to call so-and-so at another company to find out about what we’re doing.”

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