Survey says state has work to do

The number leaps off the page.

According to a survey released last week by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, 82 percent of the companies that responded said they were having trouble finding qualified workers to fill openings.

That's more than 8 out of 10 companies saying the people applying for jobs don't have the skills to do the work.

It turns out this isn't news - at least, not to the companies doing the hiring, or to state labor officials, for that matter.

"We were aware of it before the CBIA put it on paper," said Catherine Awwad, executive director of the Northwest Regional Workforce Investment Board. "We go out and talk to empolyers all the time, and one of the things that comes back is we need better-trained workers. Just basic skill levels - math, and the ability to comprehend."

Ouch. When state economic development officials try to lure companies to Connecticut, one asset they love to promote is our educated work force. Yet the companies that are already here say there just aren't enough of them to go around.

"We try to explain to parents and kids that manufacturing isn't dead in Connecticut." -Jack Traver Jr. President of Traver Industrial & Drives Controls in Waterbury

CBIA's survey, which drew 563 responses from its 10,000 member firms, found companies were having trouble filling everything from skilled technical positions to sales and customer service jobs. Guess that explains the problems at Connecticut Light & Power Co.

The skills most in demand, though, are technical, mechanical and manufacturing-related, which were cited by 35 percent of respondents.

Again, not a surprise. Just ask Frank Johnson, president of the Manufacturing Alliance of Connecticut.

"The top issues for manufacturers used to be health care, workers' compensation and energy costs," he said. "Now, the lack of an available work force is No. 1."

He's not only talking about youngsters. Even adults who have worked in manufacturing for a while may not have the skill level needed to fill the open jobs. Awwad has seen this first-hand.

"Hershey just cut loose 220 people in Naugatuck last year," she said, referring to the closing of the Peter Paul Factory, where they use to make Mounds and Almond Joys. Those workers "have some medium technical skills, but they didn't use a lot of high-tech machinery.There are jobs for them, but we're having a hard time matching their current skill levels with the job-requirement skill levels of the employers."

This is serious stuff, folks. We already know Connecticut's work force is aging rapidly - it's the seventh oldest in the nation, according to the Connecticut Economic Resource Center.

We also know that its best and brightest young adults head out of state before the ink is dry on their diplomas. If we don't start training our remaining workers in the skills that are needed, the young adults heading out on Interstate 84 and 95 will be joined by more companies like Hershey.

The good news is there are efforts being made to provide the skills.

Johnson's organization, for one, has a program teaching basic technical skills, such as computer numerical control, or CNC, machining to adults.

"Most of the old-line manufacturing operations are going over to computer-controlled machinery," he said. "There is a demand for that in almost every industry. There are no low-tech jobs left in Connecticut. They are all high-tech to one degree or another. We need basic computer skills, basic math and science skills, and even that's become difficult to find."

Jack Traver Jr., president of Traver Industrial & Controls in Waterbury and vice president of the Smaller Manufacturer's Association, said the SMA is doing all that it can to change that. The group has worked closely with the region's technical schools, and helped a manufacturing program at Naugatuck Valley Community College earn certification by the National Institute of Metallurgical Standards.

The organization also created the School to Career manufacturing event that grew so big it moved to Hartford last year and is now run by CBIA.

"We try to explain to parents and kids that manufacturing isn't dead in Connecticut," Traver said. "They have super high wages, great benefits, and it's not the old smokestack dirty enviroment."

Still, enrollment in technical school manufacturing programs is down, as students focus on more "exciting" endeavors, he said.

Johnson concurred. "We continue to not see students in votech high schools gravitate to manufacturing," he said. They watch the Food Channel and see it's kind of a sexy industry. I just read somewhere that Las Vegas, on any given day, could hire another 10,000 pastry chefs."

Awwad says that at least educational institutions and industrial companies are talking, which is a step in the right direction.

"We're saying to both industry and the kids, here's your next generation work force. ... For those with no financial ability to go to college, or who just aren't going to go, here's a chance to learn a skill and earn a very good wage."

And, based on the CBIA survey, there will be plenty of jobs waiting for them when they're done.

Business Editor David Krechevsky can be reached at (203) 574-3636 ext. 1416, or by e-mail at