The U.S. Secretary of Labor spent much of Tuesday getting an up-close look at the region’s Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative, a collaborative effort between local employers and schools aimed at addressing the need for qualified workers at high-tech companies such as Electric Boat.
Secretary Alexander Acosta, flanked by the U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both Democrats from Connecticut, began his tour at Quinebaug Valley Community College’s Advanced Manufacturing Lab in Danielson, where students worked drills, planes and rulers as part of a new 10-week inside machinist program.
After touring the Danielson community college, Acosta took part in a roundtable discussion at the American Job Center in Montville, a state Department of Labor facility. The federal labor secretary was joined again by Blumenthal and Murphy, plus Gov. Ned Lamont and about 30 local people involved in the pipeline initiative.
The pipeline began in 2015 after job growth numbers laid out a pattern of increased need for skilled employees at manufacturing hubs such as the Groton-based submarine-builder Electric Boat. The shipyard, Eastern Connecticut’s biggest employer, was the final stop on Acosta’s and the senators’ tour.
“The companies told us they needed quick action, an accelerated way to attract employees,” said John Beauregard, president of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board.
The pipeline program, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Workplace Initiative Fund, offers specialized training to under- and unemployed applicants at several locations, including QVCC and Three Rivers Community College in Norwich. Since its inception, more than 80 percent of the program’s graduates have been placed in manufacturing jobs, the vast majority at Electric Boat, Beauregard said.
Acosta, who toured the QVCC lab and spoke with several students, was struck by the level of collaboration that allowed classes to be tailored to a specific employer’s needs.
“Educators are going to employers and asking what they need,” he said. “It used to be that colleges provided educational skills and then Electric Boat would re-educate. This is transformative.”
Acosta noted while other colleges across the country have amended class schedules or re-organized class cohorts to meet the manufacturing need, QVCC seemed to have struck the right balance.
Stephen Lapointe, the college’s Manufacturing Technology Center director, said students come into the program with differing backgrounds.
“Some have no manufacturing experience,” he said. “Some get their certificates and go right to work, where they get additional job-related training, while others continue with our credit courses for an advanced certificate.”
Christopher Baker, a 22-year-old Norwich Free Academy graduate, was two weeks into the inside machinist course on Tuesday. He said after several minimum wage jobs, he accompanied his then-girlfriend to a job interview at Electric Boat a couple months ago.
“I asked how to get into the field and they pointed me to this program,” he said. ’And I already have an offer for a job at EB. I love being here; it’s way better than any job I ever had. It makes me happy every day walking in here.”
Murphy said the pipeline initiative gives the region’s workers another set of options.
“We love our four-year universities, but there are quicker and cheaper pathways to a job,” he said. “We need more options like this.”
Blumenthal said he and Murphy are pushing for more federal funding for pipeline types of programs.
The pipeline program is the answer, Blumenthal said at the Montville roundtable discussion, to the most common question he is asked at the Pentagon about weapons built in Connecticut, “Are you going to have the people to make them?”
“It’s a national model that placed over 1,300 Connecticut residents in jobs,” Murphy said, and built “a set of next-generation submarines.”
“It’s a small investment with a large return,” state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said. She said that pipeline has been able to help workers laid off at the region’s two casinos take advantage of jobs openings at Electric Boat.
“We’re able to train those workers back into manufacturing,” Osten said.
“The collaboration is really the key,” said Ray Coombs, owner of Westminster Tools in Plainfield and founder of the Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance.
Murphy said the pipeline program has support from Republicans and Democrats, labor unions and businesses.
Numerous speakers at the roundtable discussion praised Beauregard. EWIB, using federal and state grant money, implemented the pipeline program.
EWIB Chairman Chris Jewell, who is also an owner of manufacturer Collins & Jewell Co. in Bozrah, said that normally it takes about 18 months to train a worker, but graduates of the pipeline are trained in only six months.
“They’re better suited to become future shipbuilders,” said Ken Delacruz, president of the Metal Trades Council, the major union at Electric Boat. “It’s a win-win.”
“We’ve had 1,000 hires to date,” said Maura Dunn, vice president of human resources and administration at Electric Boat. “We’re tapping people who’ve never been in manufacturing in their life.”
“I am where I am today because of the pipeline,” said one recent EB hire, Ricardo Jimenez. He said he worked a variety of jobs in restaurants and retailing, and saw no future in them. He applied to Electric Boat and was sent to the pipeline program at QVCC before being hired.
“I can see a life for me and my family,” Jimenez said.
At the roundtable, Acosta joined other speakers in calling for changing the perception of manufacturing jobs. He said a college education isn’t necessarily needed to provide “family-sustaining” careers.
“A lot of this begins with the guidance counselors,” Acosta said.
“Manufacturing wages are increasing faster than others,” he said. “We need to talk more about them.”
“We have 4,000 manufacturers in the state of Connecticut looking for workers,” Osten said.
“The skills pipeline is the best investment we can make,” Lamont said. “We’ve got to remind people (manufacturing) is an amazing job, and it pays better than a sociology degree at Yale.”