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U.S. House OKs bill to help grow CT workforce, manufacturing sector

Sakai Cort, Sharde Vessells, Clarence Rizer, and Kyle Tyszka, left to right, learn to read blueprints at Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson, in the Advanced Manufacturing Center. Students from different levels of manufacturing backgrounds teamed up to help each other.
Sakai Cort, Sharde Vessells, Clarence Rizer, and Kyle Tyszka, left to right, learn to read blueprints at Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson, in the Advanced Manufacturing Center. Students from different levels of manufacturing backgrounds teamed up to help each other.

As employers seek to scale up, companies in Connecticut — particularly those in manufacturing — are still confronting challenges of an aging workforce and changing industries, even with federal and state investments in job training opportunities.

In an effort to better address workforce gaps, Congress took the first step Tuesday night in passing federal legislation to bolster workforce development programs. It also updates an existing law that has benefited the state, but has also seen some shortfalls over the past decade, according to those in the manufacturing industry.

The House easily cleared the two-thirds majority support needed to pass “A Stronger Workforce for America Act.” Both U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, sit on the House Education and Workforce Committee, which recently advanced the bill. It now moves to the Senate for passage.

The bipartisan bill reauthorizes and updates “The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act,” a law that has been in place since 2014. WIOA provides funding for groups like the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, which help fund a number of programs including the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative.

Danté Bartolomeo, commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Labor, said the federal funding provided by WIOA is a significant investment and helps employers in Connecticut, which are looking to fill around 90,000 jobs that are currently open.

“WIOA-funded programs get workers off the sidelines and back into the job market. They help train and place people facing barriers to employment. And they create opportunities for young people to explore careers and prepare for the workforce. These are the foundations of public workforce training,” Bartolomeo said in a statement.

The proposed updates include using half of the adult and dislocated worker funding to go toward teaching workers additional skills through “individual training accounts,” providing more development services for workers who have lost jobs, and focusing on employer-led programs that help workers gain new skills and training.

Workforce development groups like EWIB in the eastern part of the state hope those changes grow programs like the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative. Through the no-cost program, participants can access training tailored to specific employers with the hopes of landing jobs at Groton-based Electric Boat and others who are members of the Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance Regional Sector Partnership.

“Bipartisan House passage of this bill is an important step toward updating our nation’s primary federal workforce development legislation. The bill contains several elements that address shortcomings in the current law while adding innovative approaches, including concepts that have been critical to the success of our award-winning Eastern CT Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative,” Michael Nogelo, president and CEO of the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, said.

Speaking from the House floor before the vote, Courtney recalled the former U.S. labor secretary visiting the state and meeting with EWIB in 2015. Months after that visit, the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative launched with a federal grant. Courtney noted that nearly 3,500 graduates have secured jobs since the program’s inception.

“My district in eastern Connecticut is the fastest growing labor market in our state and the second fastest in New England,” Courtney said. “Because of this highly successful training pipeline, they’ve had the workforce to meet the growing build rate that continues to this day. We need pre-apprenticeship programs like the manufacturing pipeline to fill the 9 million job openings in the U.S. economy. This bill will do just that.”

Changes to the law come at a critical time for Connecticut. A recent study conducted by Ernst & Young and Connecticut manufacturing consultancy CONNSTEP found that it is falling behind other states’ advanced manufacturing workforce and innovation efforts with the decline of jobs and looming competition elsewhere.

It also comes as manufacturing companies like Electric Boat are trying to significantly boost their hiring to meet a demanding shipbuilding pace.

A combination of disruptions have put a strain on the U.S. submarine industry and procurement: the pandemic, supply chain issues and a workforce that is aging and retiring. Companies like Electric Boat are hiring to fill those gaps and add to the ranks as production grows over the next decade.

Electric Boat fell just short of its 2023 hiring goals, but added more than 5,300 people last year and plans to grow its workforce with more than 5,000 hires again for 2024.

As a key contractor to build submarines for the U.S. Navy, Electric Boat will also be tasked in the next decade with manufacturing Virginia-class subs to help build out Australia’s nuclear-powered fleet as part of a security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS).

But even as their sub procurement is expected to balloon, the Pentagon proposed cutting one Virginia-class sub for fiscal year 2025, sparking frustration among federal lawmakers from Connecticut. The budget proposal would reduce the number from two to one nuclear-powered submarine a year and cut spending by $2.6 billion compared to the current fiscal year.

Mike McCord, comptroller of the U.S. Department of Defense, said in a recent briefing that the change was to help get the production cadence back on track, noting that boats that are supposed to be delivered this year were months behind. Lawmakers argued that if the proposal was enacted, it would set back the gains made by the submarine industrial base in recent years.

Because of the growing investments, employers like Electric Boat feel confident they can meet the growing demands within their industry.

Courtney Murphy, who is director of talent acquisition and workforce development at Electric Boat, noted that the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative has more than a 90% placement rate of its graduates at jobs.

“Electric Boat thinks of the MPI as our ‘secret weapon’ for growth,” Murphy said. “Anything that strengthens it has our full support.”

This story was originally published by the CT Mirror on April 9, 2024.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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