October is “Manufacturing Month” in Connecticut, and efforts are underway to create the next generation of engineers and innovators as part of the state’s “Dream It. Do It” program. Companies, nonprofits, academic institutions and the state government are working together to promote the high-tech sector to youngsters through month-long events such as “Manufacturing Mania,” where school kids are exposed to manufacturers and career opportunities.
Maria Leise of Lisbon Central School learned to make a simple metal bracelet using a hand-turn tool, also used to make fan-guards at Acme Wire Products in Mystic. She was excited to discover that engineering could be artistic. “I just thought it had to do with building cars and aeroplanes and stuff,” she said. “I never really thought about jewelry or 3D printers.” Mary Fitzgerald, president of Acme, came upon the idea at a Girl Scouts event, and decided to give it a try here. “A lot of the girls don’t know what careers are available in manufacturing until someone shows them,” she pointed out.
Leise is one of nearly 100 middle school students visiting a manufacturing event at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, organized by the East Hartford-based Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT). Students stopped by at ten display tables and were curious about additive manufacturing and the use of cutting tools. Amir Butcher from Teachers’ Memorial Middle School thought some of the tools at manufacturer Sandvik Coromant were similar to what his dad has in the garage. “I’m just wondering if I’m going to get a job that pays enough and [if it’s one that] I’d like,” he said. “I have a lot of people saying in my life, ‘If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ So I’m looking for one of those jobs.”
He was pleased when a volunteer told him that in Connecticut, even entry level wages in manufacturing are higher than average in other fields by around 60 percent. The average salary for a manufacturing job is nearly $90,000. Yet many seemed unaware of the career opportunities, said Gene Harper, hiring manager at General Dynamics, which had a Virginia class submarine illustration on display at its table. “It was pretty apparent they don’t understand what manufacturing is about," he said, "and how widespread it is in Connecticut, and opportunities for them to go into those fields. That’s what we’re trying to do, get the word out to the students.”
Grace Sawyer Jones, president of Three Rivers Community College, said that one way to increase student awareness is by exposing them early on to engineering careers. “This is what creates the increase in numbers,” she said. “It’s by having students who are looking to these fields long before they come to college. And more important [are the] the manufacturing businesses that are here. Those are the parts that you bring together early in their lives, so they really have a realization of the possibilities.”
The Connecticut Department of Labor's 2010 – 2020 occupational projections indicate the need for 560 new manufacturing workers each year, with a particular demand for machinists, assemblers and computer controlled machine tool operators. John Beauregard, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, said industry and academia must work together to reduce the current skills gap in advanced manufacturing. “We’ve learned first hand of some of those openings," he said, "and how some of the programs we can design by working together can fill those gaps. We had a manufacturing class that graduated last spring. They went through a complete community-coordinated pipeline, if you will. I think 30 of 33 of the graduates found employment.”
CCAT was awarded $450,000 by the Connecticut Department of Labor and the state Department of Economic and Community Development to promote the manufacturing sector through year-long events. Susan Palisano, director of education and workforce development, said CCAT’s programs over the years have brought results. “We’ve seen enrollments at our technical high schools in ninth grade students coming in and choosing manufacturing technologies as their professional track,” she said. “We’ve seen enrollments at schools where we have run summer programming increase enormously actually; in some cases double.”
Initiatives include hands-on events for middle and high school students, open houses at manufacturers’ locations, and workshops for parents and guidance counselors. This month alone, the non-profit plans to reach out to more than 500 kids.