STEM Series: Employers Promote STEM Learning

Feb 16, 2012

Connecticut’s students are falling behind in science, technology, engineering and math. All this week WNPR is examining this problem, and its implications for our 21st century workforce. Today, Harriet Jones reports on efforts by employers to address the lack of STEM skills. 

Connecticut is facing a bizarre paradox. Despite chronically high unemployment, many companies in the state can’t find workers to do the jobs they have available. According to Professor Susan Coleman of The University of Hartford, part of the reason is that the game has changed.

“We’re competing globally on the basis of being a knowledge economy. We’re not doing labor-intensive types of tasks, we’re not doing unskilled manufacturing.” 

And she says, trying to get out there in that knowledge economy without the vital STEM skills is a losing strategy.

“I mean it’s like going into a sporting event with the wrong kind of equipment. You can be the best athlete on the field, but if you don’t have the equipment you’re not going to be competitive.” 

Some companies are finding the problem so acute that they’re taking matters into their own hands

“While these people are training they still have to run their machines. They still have to get product out the door, because if we don’t get product out the door, we don’t get funds in the door.” 

This is Peter Paul Electronics, a manufacturing company in New Britain, where Human Resources director Judi Spreda says the lack of basic math and problem solving skills among job applicants makes hiring very difficult.

“This is our academy. There will be, two or three times a day, people sitting at all four stations…..” 

Peter Paul has actually set aside a portion of its shop floor space as a training center – the Peter Paul Academy, so that employees can brush up on basic skills while at work.

“I think we have nine people enrolled in a precision measurement for machinists course. We have probably ten people who are going to be taking the shop math class.” 

One of those who’s benefited from Peter Paul’s proactive approach is Julio Reyes, who’s found his first job here – conditional on his completing the in-house training. And what has he learned the most here in his first few months on the job?

“Basically a lot of math – if you’re going to work in manufacturing you gotta know a lot of math. I learned I think a lot more here than in school. It’s a whole lot different.” 

The problem of fostering home-grown talent is also on the mind of some of the state’s biggest employers. This is Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford. Bill Harris works for Sikorsky’s advanced programs unit.

“Takes us five to six years to get a guy ready to work on our product. The lifecycle of our product is 50 years. So when you come here to work it really benefits us to have guys that want to stay 10 or 15 or 20 or 25 years.” 

He says when he visits high schools he sees the huge value in the linkage between the workplace and education.

“When you tell them you work for a helicopter company, you work on something that flies, that’s an automatic attraction.” 

Harris is now heading up what the company is calling its STEM Challenge, overseeing six high school teams who are competing to solve a real world challenge, redesigning a part for the Connecticut Corsair, a 1930s aircraft that’s being rebuilt with modern technology and materials. Harris says the whole idea is to turn kids on to the excitement of a career that uses the STEM skills.

“Engineers loved to do this. I had no trouble at all finding mentors, finding people who would work on this – even on their own time.” 

“Well the funny story is that they’re very willing – they’re just waiting for people to ask.”

Susan Palisano at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology works with employers every day who want to get involved in the state’s education system. But she says, what’s lacking is a coordinated approach.

“There are lots of great pockets of initiatives that happen here in Connecticut, but we’re not a state that leverages best practices.” 

Gary Zweifel agrees.

“Any educational program needs to have some involvement on the community side or the business side, otherwise how do you know if you’re doing the right thing or not?” 

Zweifel works for Delta Industries, a manufacturing company with 165 employees that makes jet engine parts for Pratt & Whitney.

“This company is high-tech. Takes us, some of our parts, as long as six weeks to make them, and they could be worth over $100,000. So to put somebody coming in off the street that has no knowledge of it, and to train them on the kind of stuff we do – it’s a risk we don’t want to take.” 

For the last 14 years, Zweifel has been on the advisory board at Asnuntuck Community College, which runs one of the state’s most successful manufacturing training centers.

“It goes a full year, it has not only machinist training, but math training, computer training, programming, safety, lean manufacturing, inspection. It’s got the whole array. All the kinds of things we need people know before we bring them on board here.” 

Companies like zweifels have direct input into Asnuntuck’s curriculum. Asnuntuck’s program has a more than 90 percent graduation rate, and almost all of its graduates already have a job lined up when they leave. The Malloy administration wants to clone the center at three other community colleges around the state. And that’s the kind of initiative that Connecticut’s employers are asking for. Judi Spreda at Peter Paul Electronics:

“I think we’re finally starting to become aware in the state of Connecticut that, you know what – we kind of dropped the ball a little bit, and we’re starting to pick it up again.”

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.