Governor Dannel Malloy faced many challenges in his eight year tenure. While the state budget crisis may have grabbed the headlines, other structural issues with Connecticut’s economy also consumed his attention. One of the biggest of these - the skills gap.
Connecticut bled more than 100,000 jobs during the great recession. That downturn was prolonged, particularly for the Nutmeg State, where economic recovery significantly lagged the nation.
But even as key employers began to add jobs back in recent years, many found they’d hit another hurdle.
“What we are finding when we go to interview people is that we’re not getting the basic skills required to enter into the manufacturing field,” said Electric Boat principal engineer Pat Larkin, speaking back in 2016, as the submarine maker prepared to hire thousands of waterfront workers.
In everything from math competency to handling tools - the recruits weren’t qualified.
Marge Valentin, dean of workforce and community education at Three Rivers Community College, worked with Larkin back then to create a new hands-on, six-week course to close that gap.
"It’s a different kind of manufacturing, it’s not the manufacturing that we had years ago that...we lost," she said. "It’s a workforce that needs to be recreated."
And that has been a significant challenge for the Malloy administration, not just in manufacturing but in some of the state’s other key industries: finance, insurance, health care, and technology. The jobs are coming back, but those who could use them - the unemployed or the underemployed - aren’t ready to take advantage.
“I don’t know that people necessarily made the connection between education and what’s now happening in terms of manufacturing and other sectors clamoring for people,” said Andrea Comer of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “And I think that’s where Governor Malloy did a really good job, was shining a light on the achievement gap, shining a light on those inequities.”
Comer said industries struggling for workers needed to be persuaded to think differently. “A lot of the solution came with changing hearts and minds," she said. "Pivoting people to look in areas where they hadn’t looked before. In our urban centers, in our population of folks who are returning to our communities post-incarceration. Those are all areas where our high growth sectors may not have looked before, but if that’s where the people are…”
But having found that potential labor force, the question became, who is responsible for training them?
In downtown Hartford, the giant Indian technology company Infosys cut the ribbon this fall on a new U.S. hub, with the aim of hiring a thousand people in the city. Infosys executive Ravi Kumar says developing the skilled workforce he needs will be a partnership.
“We are a very unique employer - we will hire from schools, invest on the training for eight to 12 weeks, and we will make them productive to the workforce,” he told reporters at the opening. Infosys is partnering specifically with Trinity College in Hartford to bring liberal arts graduates into technology careers.
That closer partnership between the educational sector and industry has been perhaps the key push of the Malloy years; just as Electric Boat did several years ago, reaching out to community colleges to develop industry specific - even employer specific - training.
And that's how Malloy himself sees the solution to the skills gap.
“Most people in Connecticut think we’ve fallen behind in the preparation of a workforce when we’re actually exceeding workforce goals," said the outgoing governor. "I give a lot of credit to community colleges for reinventing themselves, and quite frankly for private and state universities to understand that they had a larger role to play in preparing a workforce.”
While Malloy gains praise for the direction he’s taken with closing the skills gap, questions remain about how fast that gap can be bridged. Manufacturing alone is projected to generate an additional 25,000 jobs in the next two decades, and many employers say the lack of skilled candidates will be a steep challenge for the state for the foreseeable future.
This story is part of American Graduate: Getting to Work, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. More at cptv.org/makingthefuture.