Three new training centers opened this fall at Connecticut’s community colleges, aimed at turning out hundreds of workers ready to take jobs in advanced manufacturing. WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports.
These students at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport are learning the theory behind computer numerical control, or CNC machining. Christopher Heun says he chose this manufacturing certificate course because he enjoys working with his hands.
“After school I got a job at a steel shop, and the economy went down and we didn’t have work. Since then I’ve been going from minimum wage job to minimum wage job with no enjoyment or future in it.”
Heun says he’s confident the training he’ll get here will give him the edge he needs.
“At my old job, if I knew some of the things I’m going to learn, whether it be the CAD or the computer aspects, I could go back there and take those jobs. So they’re waiting – I just wasn’t trained.”
Heun and his fellow students at Housatonic’s new advanced manufacturing center are confined to the classroom for now, but in just a few weeks time, they’ll be let loose here in the lab.
“Well, we’ve got… in this particular area here we’ve got nine milling machines and eight lathes…”
Bill Griffin is Housatonic’s academic coordinator and he’s overseen the project as this lab has come together over the last six months.
“And then as we walk back through here we enter the CNC area….”
Housatonic received a share of $18 million of state money to set up this center, along with Quinebaug in Danielson and Naugatuck in Waterbury. That kind of money has funded the very latest in CNC equipment, and Griffin says in a notoriously underfunded area of education, it’s good to be ahead of the curve.
“Just about one percent of manufacturers have five-axis CNC machines, and just about 35 percent of them will have them in five years, so we’re very excited about that.”
Touring the almost finished lab with Griffin is Frank Gulluni, one of the moving forces behind this expansion of manufacturing training in the state.
“This is the first time that I’ve seen the finished product, and I must say at the outset that I’m very jealous, very envious.”
Gulluni has for more than a decade run the manufacturing technology center at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield – the model for Housatonic and the others.
“You know, having gone through all of that over the last what, six months I guess Bill, and now seeing it, it is dramatically so much more than I could ever have imagined.”
“For me it was like coming into Toyland.”
Mike Gugger is the man who’ll really get to see this lab in action – he’s the new program director for the center, and he comes with 18 years of experience in manufacturing behind him.
“The best way to build wealth in an economy is to add value. In my opinion the best way to add value is in manufacturing. We made the mistake of letting our manufacturing wane.”
And manufacturing has been waning. According to US figures the sector has lost two thirds of its jobs in the last four decades, declining from 30 percent of US employment to around ten percent. So is Gugger confident there will be jobs for his students when they graduate? He says the center has the blessing and close involvement of local manufacturing companies.
“From our advisory committee we hear that they have machines that are idle, because they can’t find talent to run them. So their capital equipment is sitting idle because they can’t fill the position. To me that says, yeah, there’s pent up demand.”
And he says a recent survey of local job boards backs up that anecdotal evidence.
“In just the Bridgeport region we were able to find 750 manufacturing or manufacturing-related positions that were open, and many have been open for a long time.”
Meanwhile Housatonic’s President, Anita Glenetski, says that’s just a place to start.
“This program is already built to stretch from one end of Connecticut’s Greenwich-Stamford area. All the way through the valley and then into New Haven, so we’ve got a very wide service area to which we must pay attention.”
Frank Gulluni from Asnuntuck is ready to back up claims of a manufacturing revival with an actual forecast.
“This is an area in which Connecticut can grow. We were once at 220,00 jobs in Connecticut. We’re at about 170, 175 at this juncture. I have said openly, candidly, I think we can be at 210, 215 within the next five years.”
If manufacturing really can produce 40,000 new jobs in the state in the next five years, that would handsomely repay the investment that Governor Dannel Malloy’s administration has made in these new centers. Gulluni says producing the right workforce is the key first step.
“So I think with four of us, across the state, four community colleges poised to operate programs for two, three, four, five hundred people annually, we can begin to convince existing employers, as well as those new employers from Europe and other places, that want to look at Connecticut as a future home.”
Students here and at the other new manufacturing centers across Connecticut will hope he is right.
For WNPR, I’m Harriet Jones.