Finding A Second Chance In Conn.'s New Manufacturing Landscape

Mar 3, 2015

HCC student Ed Daniels watches as a fellow student works on a class project.
Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU

An expanding community college program in Connecticut is promising lots of jobs to students in the field of advanced manufacturing: a range of work that requires that requires the latest and most advanced technology and more precision than traditional manufacturing. Government officials and businesses see it as a second chance to for the state be a nationwide manufacturing player – and some students are betting it’ll give them a second chance, too.

One of those students is Ed Daniels, a former sheet metal worker for Sikorsky who served 14 years in the military. He got laid off last year, along with hundreds of others, and found out about community college through the VA. Now he’s enrolled in Housatonic Community College’s advanced manufacturing program in Bridgeport.

“It’s not the easiest thing in the world, but it’s not the hardest, either,” he said as he finished a day of work on a small steel block. “I appreciate that I get a chance to do it a second time.”

Students here in the advanced manufacturing program are preparing this steel block as part of their semester project. They’re using computer imaging and 3D mapping. Back in the 1950s, they would have drilled, and that’s it. But still, these are basic methods compared to some of what they may find themselves doing in the field.

Microboard Processing in Seymour makes circuit boards for the military and hospitals. CEO Nicole Russo says she’s definitely interested in interviewing a new generation of workers, particularly if they have certifications.

“In many cases, these folks have just purely lost their confidence,” Russo said. “They’ve been out of the job arena for a number of months, maybe even a number of years, and our ability to bring them into a smaller shop like this, really hold their hand through the process of getting going, getting their confidence back, we’d like to be able to do.”

In many cases, these folks have just purely lost their confidence. They’ve been out of the job arena for a number of months, maybe even a number of years. - Microboard Processing CEO Nicole Russo

Microboard is constantly upgrading their machinery and experimenting with new techniques, said Russo, so they’re constantly training. She also said that they don’t do the traditional, repetitive assembly-line style work many people associate with manufacturing.

“So you have to be able to really be versatile in your thought process as things are changing throughout an hour, throughout a day, throughout a couple minute span in our type of industry here,” she said.

Things are changing quickly. An old generation of workers are retiring, and Connecticut needs new workers to replace them. That’s what Rich DuPont, director of the advanced manufacturing program at Housatonic Community College said.

“This is that ticket to a new life – a second chance, perhaps, for some people,” he said.

The program offers a 90 percent job placement rate. Industry sources say there are 6,000 open jobs in manufacturing in Connecticut – that’s six openings for everyone enrolled in these programs across the state, and starting pay hovers at around $40,000 a year, plus overtime and benefits. And that’s for jobs that don’t require a Bachelor’s Degree or an expensive certification.

This is that ticket to a new life - a second chance, perhaps, for some people. - HCC Advanced Manufacturing Program Interim Director Rich DuPont

“We have students who’ve just graduated from high school, we have others who’ve found their way in and out of jobs, some unemployed, some underemployed, who are here again for that second chance,” DuPont said.

The state is optimistic, too. Last year the U.S. Department of Labor gave Connecticut $15 million to expand advanced manufacturing programs in the state’s community colleges. At that point, U.S. Representative John Larson said the state could reclaim its past days of manufacturing glory, when it was one of the top in the nation for industry.

“To resurrect the manufacturing base in the state of Connecticut, we have to treat this as a new ecosystem,” Larson said. “And we have to nurture it with everything we can. Educational training is a key component of that.”

The program at Housatonic is one of four flagship programs at community colleges across the state. That grant will expand them statewide. Daniels, that former sheet metal worker, said he’s glad for this chance. As for what’s next?

“You know what? Sky’s the limit, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “The way I look at it, you’re never too old to learn. I won’t put the limits on where I plan to go, but this is just the beginning for me again, and I’m just going to shoot forward.”

Daniels is still in school – this semester, he joined a fraternity, and he said he’s enjoying college life. He doesn’t know where he’ll end up working. But he said he has faith that once he does find work, he’ll never be out of a job again.