Industry has plenty of jobs, but trouble overcoming stigma



toolmaker.jpgSo, where's the labor?

On this particular holiday at this particular time, it's a question that more people are wondering about. Here's why:

In a period of severe economic uncertainty, Connecticut's high school graduates still are opting for a college education that costs a record amount and no longer guarantees a good job, while industry is desperate for skilled workers and has jobs to give them.

"We offer good-paying and interesting work, training and benefits, while students and their families are still going into debt to pay college bills," said Bernard Rosselli, president of Stewart EFI, an eyelet making company based in Thomaston. "It doesn't make sense."

The problem, Rosselli and other industry leaders say, stems as much from perception as reality.

The Naugatuck Valley descended in a fairly short period of time in the last third of the 20th century from a manufacturing colossus that produced up to 90 percent of its domestic product to 14 percent today. Industry hasn't recovered from that reputation as a bad place to make one's future, and factory workers became convinced that a college education was the only way their children could obtain any security.

But there are still 5,600 manufacturers in the state, and their aging work force needs replenishing.

"The best kept secret in Connecticut is the string of small manufacturers up and down the valley, but the average age of their workers is probably 55 or older," said Joseph Vrabely Jr., president of Atlantic Steel & Processing in Waterbury.

Tipping point

"Now, we may have reached a tipping point," said Vrabely, who is one of the area's most active promoters of a larger skilled work force. "It's noble for parents to want more education for their kids, but when you look at what you spend for it and what you can earn, you may never get out of the rut."

It costs $18,600 to attend the University of Connecticut full time, and about $1,000 less to attend a state university. Community colleges, offering a two-year associate degree, range from $2,700 to $3,200 a year, without room and board.

While education officials particularly contend that over the long haul, a post-secondary-school degree is still the ticket to greater earning power, wage and job statistics in Connecticut lean more toward that tipping point between expected income and insurmountable debt.

A comparative example:

A kindergarten teacher earns a starting salary in Connecticut of $38,158, while the cost of obtaining certification is nearly $100,000. A tool and die maker starts at $42,077, according to the latest state Labor Department figures, at almost no cost to the employee because of state-funded schooling and industry-paid training opportunities.

Although a teacher and a skilled worker are generally guaranteed incremental salary increases over their career lifetimes, the worker has a big leg up over the short- and medium term. That teacher, although capable of making a mid-career salary of $62,000, likely needs to pay off school loans while struggling to meet living expenses. Meanwhile, the tool and die maker, pulling down up as much as $70,000 at mid-career, with overtime, makes more money and has no school-debt worries.

Both these income potentials are attainable only by those with post-secondary education or training. The worst off economically are those who drop out of school or only have high school degrees, economists say. "The earnings in Connecticut's labor market have turned against workers with low educational attainment, while increasingly rewarding skilled labor," said a recent report by the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis.

While the financial realities may be more tempting these days for entering the trades, Vrabely said his industry still must wage a "fight on two fronts — the image that manufacturing is dirty work, and an educational system that takes away our best candidates."

The complaint is statewide. The Connecticut Business & Industry Association completed a survey early this year in which 82 percent of responding employers reported difficulty in finding qualified workers. "Employers say they simply cannot find enough skilled workers," the report said.

To counter this continuing shortfall, Vrabely and other industry leaders in the valley started an annual job fair several years ago to show high school students exactly what kind of skilled work is available and what the jobs entail, including hands-on use of machinery. The effort was so successful that CBIA took it statewide. Last June, the three-day event called "Manufacturing Your Future" attracted 3,000 students.

The state's technical high school's deliver barely more than a 1,000 young people to the work force each year, spread over a dozen different fields. This, industry proponents say, does not meet Connecticut's needs in some skilled trades.

Meanwhile, the trend to attend college continues in Connecticut, with 73 percent of last June's high school graduates opting for a higher-education degree.