Home Column Eric Brown: 21st century manufacturing – will we make it here?

Eric Brown: 21st century manufacturing – will we make it here?

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Eric Brown

Frank Sinatra’s classic tribute to the Big Apple begins with “start spreading the news.” And that just may be the most urgent action item we all need to embrace in Fairfield County and across the state when it comes to manufacturing.

The news is that there are literally thousands of unfilled, well-paying career opportunities available to high school, college and postgraduate students, as well as experienced workers, right here in Connecticut, and right now in the 21st century manufacturing environment.

So how did we get here? Only a decade ago, many thought manufacturing was no longer a viable career option. Schools began to sacrifice classes that opened students’ minds to creating something with their hands and their imaginations. Students were often discouraged from exploring alternatives to traditional four-year colleges and parents, understandably, didn’t want their kids working in a factory for what was perceived as an old-line industry.

This perception of manufacturing continues to plague workforce development efforts. But ask yourself this: When was the last time you or your child ever visited and toured a manufacturing facility? If it was longer than even just five years ago, you’re in for a shock if you try it again.

A modern manufacturing environment is cleaner and healthier than that at many office buildings. Employees work as teams to identify and solve problems. Digital technology now turns essentially any product you can think of into reality. And because of that, knowledge-based imagination is becoming one of the most sought-after career skills.

And you’ll find young people excited to have discovered a rewarding, well-paying career path they may never have even been aware of growing up.

I recently attended the annual meeting of the New Haven Manufacturers Association, where technical high school students demonstrated their impressive and very marketable skills. Every student I spoke with already had a good job waiting for them upon graduation, and in one particular case a student was “weighing three different offers.”

This is the great news that parents, teachers, guidance counselors and students themselves need to know about 21st century manufacturing in Connecticut. October is Manufacturing Month and with events held across the state, it’s a great opportunity to tour and learn more about local manufacturing companies.

Educating state leaders, policymakers and education administrators about manufacturing’s urgent need for skilled workers is just as critical. A 2017 Connecticut Business and Industry Association survey revealed Connecticut’s manufacturing sector needs 13,000 skilled workers by the end of this year alone.

Without a doubt, there are many challenges that must be addressed for Connecticut to realize its immense economic potential by becoming, once again, a center for manufacturing innovation. These include expanding opportunities for students, current workers, and the unemployed to pursue certifications and degrees in a manufacturing field.

We must also work to identify regional employer needs and adopt effective education partnership models to address those needs in all regions. CBIA’s Education & Workforce Partnership has been doing this in the Hartford region for years and can help facilitate it in other parts of the state. Once the needs are identified, metrics must be established to better understand a program’s effectiveness.

But growing manufacturing in Connecticut requires more than just addressing workforce needs. Policymakers must make sure that state and federal funding aligns with the priority needs of manufacturers of all sizes, sectors, and regions within our state. Assistance with technology innovation and an efficient regulatory climate are also important needs.

Under a newly formed Connecticut Manufacturing Collaborative, organizations from across the state are working together and with a broad cross-section of stakeholders to develop a strategic plan for the new administration and the 2019 General Assembly that will address these and other challenges.

In the meantime, other changes are happening that will help manufacturing in Connecticut. CBIA recently announced an affiliation with CONNSTEP, a nationally recognized organization that helps manufacturers increase capital, gain efficiency and get better results.

The next administration and General Assembly must make manufacturing a key economic priority and act, based on the recommendations of the manufacturers themselves, to ensure government is an effective and productive partner.

The stakes are high. If we can’t create an environment that addresses the workforce and other essentials for manufacturers to grow and thrive, they may have no choice but to look elsewhere.

So can we really make it here? Can we once again be “king of the hill, top of the heap” when it comes to manufacturing innovation and technology? You bet we can. But it’s up to you, Fairfield County. It’s up to you, Hartford. And it’s up to you, Connecticut.

Start spreading the news!

Eric Brown is the vice president of manufacturing policy and outreach at CBIA. He previously was a senior environmental analyst with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. He can be reached at eric.brown@cbia.com.

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