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Manufacturing, government must unite to improve business climate, speakers at CT conferences say

From left: Pegasus Manufacturing President Chris DiPentima moderates a discussion with Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman and Connecticut Chief Manufacturing Officer Colin Cooper at the 2019 Manufacturing Summit, held Oct. 25 at the Trumbull Marriott Shelton.

Sharing a time, date, venue, and even a guest speaker, a pair of Oct. 25 networking events in Trumbull also shared a message: All parties in the business community must work together for the benefit of everyone.

First Selectman Vicki Tesoro set the tone during her opening remarks at the Trumbull Economic & Community Development Commission’s annual Business Appreciation event.

“Working together collaboratively and respectfully,” she said, is the way to underscore her oft-repeated mantra that “Trumbull is the place to be.”

And, at the Made in Connecticut: 2019 Manufacturing Summit, Colin Cooper made similar remarks.

“We have a very collaborative environment in Connecticut,” the executive chairman of Whitcraft Group, who was announced just four days earlier as the state’s first-ever chief manufacturing officer, said. Cooper said he’d already received “scores if not hundreds of emails from folks. Their enthusiasm is palpable. Virtually every one offered to help in some manner.”

That the Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC) and the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) are working to provide support to Connecticut’s businesses — while also working to draw new companies to the state — is an example of how working together can reap rewards, according to CERC President and CEO Peter Denious and DECD Commissioner David Lehman.

The latter — a Greenwich resident who took over the DECD in March after 15 years at Goldman Sachs — spoke at both events, held in different ballrooms at the Trumbull Marriott Shelton.

“What’s happening in Trumbull is what I think we need to make happen on the state level,” Lehman said.

The challenges in achieving that, Lehman said, are the same ones that have been invoked for years: high taxes, an aging transportation infrastructure and “the perception — and probably the reality — that we are not business-friendly.”

The commissioner touted Gov. Ned Lamont’s still-to-be-finalized CT 2030 infrastructure plan, which he described as an $18 billion, 20-year proposal aimed at fixing not only the state’s highways and railroads but also establishing a commercial airport “in south-central Connecticut.”

Lehman also pledged “tax certainty,” so that companies considering coming to or expanding their presence in the state won’t continue to be scared off by Connecticut’s fluctuating tax rates.

Denious — who took the CERC reins in August, having previously been head of global venture capital at Stamford’s Aberdeen Asset Management — said he was focusing on working closely with the DECD to provide more resources for the business community. He remarked that CERC may be renamed, as the current name “is a mouthful.”

That Connecticut’s business environment is so diverse is both a boon and a challenge, Denious added, noting that it can be difficult to get its leading sectors — not to mention its 169 municipalities — to “join up” and form a united front.

“We need to develop a long-term economic plan for at least the next 10 years,” he said, adding that CERC and DECD are not looking to simply present such a plan as a fait accompli. Connecticut needs “to play a lot more offense” when it comes to drumming up business, Lehman added. “You need to feel the love from the state.”

Part of Cooper’s remit, Lehman said, is to engage with manufacturers of all sizes to see what they, and other companies, need to excel. To achieve that, the manufacturing office needs to be “driven by a manufacturer, not a bureaucrat.”

Cooper said his chief priority is strengthening workforce development, especially as interest in blue-collar jobs continues to wane and the “silver tsunami” of retiring workers continues to grow.

“We need a larger and deeper workforce,” he said, which will require retraining a significant number of manufacturing employees to meet the demands of “Industry 4.0.”

That is the name given to the trend toward automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies and processes such as cyber-physical systems (CPS), the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Industry 4.0 was also the theme of a panel discussion featuring Stanley Black & Decker Vice President of Business Development Marty Guay, Hartford Steam Boiler Vice President, Industrial IoT Solutions Jack Webb and CONNSTEP Director, Strategic Growth and Technology Jeff Orszak.

“We’re moving from jobs that are dull, dirty and dangerous to high-tech jobs — where people work with their heads, not with their hands,” Guay said. “It’s a big culture change — and the only person who wants a change is a wet baby.

“The pioneers get the arrows. The settlers get the land.”

He added that changing mind-sets requires a “psychological enema.”

“We are really bullish on Connecticut’s manufacturing future,” he said. “It’s actually a good place to be.”

The panelists vowed that small- and medium-sized manufacturers will benefit from their larger brethren’s experiments with automation and the like.

The sector’s challenges were underscored by CBIA/CONNSTEP’s first Connecticut Manufacturing Report.

Workforce topped manufacturers’ concerns with 60% of poll respondents saying it was their most significant need. Marketing/business development was second at 14%. And 56% said it was “difficult” to both find and retain young workers.

The primary obstacles to finding qualified young workers included a lack of skills or expertise (35%) and proper work ethic (31%), while the difficulty in retaining those workers was attributed primarily to the cost of living (37%) and competition from other firms (33%).

Asked what methods they use to attract/retain young workers, 25% said offering a flexible work schedule, followed by engagement and recognition programs (20%).

On the technology side, 31% of respondents said their primary need was production integration assistance, followed by access to R&D testing, training staff and financial assistance (all 19%).

While 52% said their workforce was staying the same size, 26% said it was growing.

Seventy-two percent of respondents said their companies are in profit, from 75% last year, as 16% are breaking even, from 13% in 2018, and those operating at a loss remained the same at 12%.

According to the report, Connecticut manufacturers employ over 160,000 workers — roughly 10% of the state’s workforce — paying more than $14.9 billion in wages each year and contributing $30.8 billion annually to the state’s economy. Workers earn an average annual salary of $96,279, above the state’s $74,561 yearly per capita income.


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