Technical School System and the Workforce
4:02 pm
Mon April 18, 2011

Businesses Protest Vo-Tech School Plan

For many small businesses, training Connecticut’s workforce is a key issue for the state’s economic future. That’s one reason why Governor Malloy’s recent proposal to move the state’s technical high schools into municipal control raised so many eyebrows. WNPR’s Harriet Jones looks at how well Connecticut is planning to meet its workforce needs in the new millennium.

You might think in an economy like this, employers with a job to fill would be inundated with qualified candidates.

“We had advertised for a month, we did receive in the resumes. Unfortunately a lot of them were people that didn’t have the skills that we needed.”

That’s Amy Sartirana, a co-owner of J&G Machining in Winsted. This 30 year old machine shop employs just three full time staff, but it’s brought on several extra customers in the last two years.

“One of them is a very aggressive company here in Connecticut that is going after the LED lighting industry, and they are growing by leaps and bounds and they are using us as their primary machine shop, so our business has grown considerably.”

J&G needs to expand its workforce, but it took the company more than a year, and two unsuccessful hires to find someone who could cope with the work they are offering. The shop floor work is done primarily on what are known as CNC machines. Co-owner Bob Goulet shows me around.

“This is the CNC here, it all runs off of computer, this is the newest one that we have here, that’s also the fastest.”

CNC stands for computer numerical control machine tools, and this technology has revolutionized machining in the last few decades. But it requires specially trained operators – and Connecticut is struggling to meet that need.

“When you look at the last few weeks, how the numbers are jumping up…”

At the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology in East Hartford, workforce development coordinator Pat Downs is showing me manufacturing job postings from around the state.

“All of the data right now is showing that we are on an upswing in manufacturing. And manufacturers are going to be looking for employees, primarily CNC, and we’ve got to be focused on preparing workers in that track.”

CCAT is attempting to build a special CNC career pathway, training workers who would be able to gain a new nationally recognized credential in the discipline.

“When you take that to the employer, the employer knows by what level you’re at, what he or she can expect in terms of your abilities.”

To this end, CCAT is working with both the community colleges and with Connecticut’s technical high school system, to put new standards in place. Here at Wilcox Tech in Meriden, teacher Jim Lomatra is putting manufacturing technology students through their paces on a CNC machine.

For the last 100 years, Connecticut’s technical high schools have been the only ones under state control.

“We are charged with the responsibility of responding to Connecticut businesses and employers and trades in terms of what their workforce development needs are.”

Pat Ciccone is the Superintendent of the tech schools. She says she was stunned when in his budget address in February, Governor Dannel Malloy announced plans to hand the schools over to municipal control. She says such a plan would torpedo the school’s strategic role in developing Connecticut’s workforce.

“What will happen is, the business, the industry in Connecticut says, here’s what we need, here’s what it’s going to look like in the next three years. And maybe we’re going to be able to do it at our school in Hartford, but maybe New Britain isn’t going to be able to get there, maybe Ansonia isn’t going to be able to get there, so we’re not going to have a statewide solution.”

The problem is, the technical high schools are very costly to run. If you want an up to date workforce, you must train them on up to date equipment. And even now, many schools rely on old machines, donated by local businesses, which keeps them at least one step behind the needs of industry. Ciccone says the latest budget proposal illustrates the immensity of the gap.

“I did put forward a capital request the next two years of the biennium of 28 million and 28 million. And the Governor’s budget calls for us getting 5 million and 5 million. It’s like an 8 lane highway in between those figures.”

The legislature’s education committee recently held a public hearing on the proposal for municipal control of the schools. State representative Andy Fleischmann co-chairs the committee.

“We heard a lot of concerns from a lot of stakeholders, including the businesses that often hire graduates from the technical high schools.”

In the end the committee passed a bill that keeps in place a study on the role of the tech schools and what their future will be, but delays any move until that study is completed next year. Fleischmann says local control will be just one of the options under consideration.

“Local school districts are under tremendous financial duress, right now. And very few can forsee how they would go ahead and undertake operation of these additional schools.”

Back at J&G Machining in Winsted, Amy Sartirana says businesses have no desire to see their local tech, Oliver Wolcott, handed over to the town of Torrington.

“Every single town is struggling with a budget now. Those schools are going to end up closing if you do that, and then where would we be? You’re going to lose any kind of skilled labor that you were being taught, and then I don’t know where we’re going to find kids.”

And for the many different Connecticut industries served by the state’s technical high school system, that’s a common concern.

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.