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Roads to Recovery: How the pandemic is accelerating workforce training

For decades, manufacturers in the U.S. have warned of a massive skills gap: There just aren't enough new skilled workers to make up for older ones who are retiring. In this installment of our series, "Roads to Recovery," NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker reports from Connecticut on how the pandemic has accelerated a push to improve and expand job training for the state's large manufacturing workforce.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For decades, manufacturers in the United States have warned of a massive skills gap: that there are not enough new workers with the skills needed to make up for older ones who are retiring.

    President Biden has proposed $100 billion for workforce training over the next ten years as part of the American Jobs Plan – a plan he touted during his address to Congress earlier this week.

  • Joe Biden:

    Nearly 90 percent of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree. Seventy-five percent don't require an associate's degree. The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America. That's what it is.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In this installment of our series "Roads to Recovery," Christopher Booker reports from southwestern Connecticut on how the pandemic has accelerated a push to improve and expand training for the state's manufacturing workforce.

    This story is part of our ongoing series "Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America."

  • Christopher Booker:

    There is much to be read in Bigelow's tea leaves. Watching the tea bags being manufactured in this Fairfield, Connecticut factory is to see a collision between the past and present.

    The final product would not be unfamiliar to Ruth C. Bigelow, who started this company nearly 80 years ago. But the speed and mechanization of producing 460 million tea bags a year with just 100 workers is entirely new.

  • Cindi Bigelow:

    When we first started, the business was built on women whose kids were in school and the hours that they were able to work. And those hours were the hours they came in.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Cindi Bigelow is Ruth's granddaughter and the CEO of Bigelow Tea, which in addition to this plant also has production facilities in Louisville, Kentucky and Boise, Idaho.

    How hard is it to find and retain talent, particularly on the manufacturing side?

  • Cindi Bigelow:

    It is a challenge and the pandemic made it more challenging.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The factories never shut down, even as the market for tea changed. Demand increased at home, but cratered at the office. That, combined with the pandemic itself, put extra pressure on Bigelow's workforce.

  • Cindi Bigelow:

    When you think about manufacturing, you recognize that it's a disciplined profession. You have to be here on time. You have a certain number of hours. You're working on lines with other individuals. There's a real collaboration. And so when you have a pandemic hit and all of a sudden transportation has gotten more challenging, child care was devastated, that impacts the employees. And impacted our ability to be able to retain and keep and hire individuals.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Even before the pandemic, Bigelow says the company was always looking for new workers, and like other manufacturers, its workforce is aging.

  • Cindi Bigelow:

    A lot of our mechanics have been here 20, 25 years and they're working toward retirement. So we need to make sure we're getting people in here and they have to have what we call sort of soft skills and they have to have sort of the mechanical and electrical aptitude.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But in Connecticut, like every state in America, there are not enough people with these skills.

  • Teacher:

    I'm going to write the same program, but I'm going to adjust for the tool.

  • Christopher Booker:

    About 15 miles from Bigelow's Fairfield plant, a small group of aspiring machinists is getting their first exposure to computerized machining tools after five weeks of virtual classes.

    Funded by grants from the federal government and Connecticut's Departments of Labor — and in partnership with companies like Bigelow — the eight-week pre-apprenticeship class provides training in soft skills and industrial safety. That's in addition to hands-on training with tools, blueprint reading, and machine programming.

    Is this the first time you had thought about pursuing something like this?

  • Khaila McClintock:

    Yes, this has been the first. I never knew anything about manufacturing.

  • Christopher Booker:

    If all goes well, 24-year old Khaila McClintock will be a full-time apprentice in a matter of weeks. She attended some college after graduating high school, but didn't graduate and has student debt. And she lost her job in a deli last March due to the COVID shutdown.

  • Khaila McClintock:

    I just want to be situated like and I know with this trade I can further in it and I know I can make some type of living off of it.

  • Christopher Booker:

    A crucial part of the training equation is additional funding for supplies & fees, as well as childcare and transportation. McClintock lives about 30 miles away and the program provides a ride to and from each in-person class.

    If you had not had that transportation, do you think you'd be able to get here?

  • Khaila McClintock:

    It would be a struggle without them. A struggle.

  • Christopher Booker:

    At the end of eight weeks, McClintock will have a certificate from the National Institute of Metalworking Skills, and be connected with a local employer, like Bigelow, where she will complete an apprenticeship lasting at least a year, a paid job that also commits to providing structured on-the-job training and mentorship.

    While the idea for this program began before the pandemic, Joe Carbone, CEO of The WorkPlace, a Fairfield County-based nonprofit administering the program, says training like this has taken on new importance after the disruption of the last 13 months.

  • Joe Carbone:

    When you look in Connecticut at the people that are right now collecting unemployment benefits, two-thirds are people that earned $35,000 a year or less in 2019. To the extent we can help to move people up, feeding the kind of skills that are needed for the these jobs that you can do an apprenticeship program, they are that buffer between people that are unskilled and where you could begin to move up the ladder to feed into the industries that are growing and are paying reasonably good wages.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And officials in Connecticut are hoping that manufacturing, which makes up about 10 percent of the state's workforce, with an average wage of nearly $20 an hour, may provide that bridge.

  • Colin Cooper:

    The pandemic has been really a catalyst to get people focused on workforce development.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Colin Cooper is Connecticut's Chief Manufacturing Officer. He was appointed by Governor Ned Lamont in 2019 to serve as the state's advocate for manufacturing, after a career running an aerospace manufacturing company. It's the first position like this in the country.

  • Colin Cooper:

    We graduate approximately 9,000 high school students a year that don't go on to college or the military. So those students are at risk of being underemployed if they don't get additional training. And we look at that as a river of talent coming out of our high school systems, that we need to access that talent and get them the opportunity to get some of this training.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And they need to do it fast.

  • Colin Cooper:

    Thirty-five percent of our manufacturing workforce is 55 years or older. So we have a lot of attrition from retirement. And those happen to be the most highly skilled, experienced workers that are retiring. And so we're focused on incumbent worker training as well as training new entrants.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Sounds like a remarkably complicated task because on one hand, you have such a large portion of the working population coming towards retirement, coupled with a pretty dramatic change in technology and what the skills that are needed for these jobs.

  • Colin Cooper:

    Yes, yeah, exactly right. I mean, we have sort of a generational shift in terms of all these digital technologies that are coming to bear in the manufacturing environment.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Cooper says even if you have the skills for today, there is a good chance, they won't be enough for what's coming.

  • Ron Angelo:

    As that powder comes in it meets the laser at just the right point, at just the right temperature it forms a melt pool and builds your part, or repairs your part.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Ron Angelo is the CEO of the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology or CCAT. The nonprofit was founded in 2004 with a federal grant to combat the loss in manufacturing jobs overseas and to prepare Connecticut companies and the workforce for the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow.

  • Ron Angelo:

    This is the thing with the pandemic, as horrible as it is, what type of opportunities could come out of it?

  • Christopher Booker:

    Including unprecedented amounts of funding from the federal government. Last September, CCAT launched a program called Rev-Up, subsidizing wages for Connecticut manufacturing companies that brought back furloughed or laid-off employees, and provided them with additional training. The program was funded using nearly $750,000 from the 2020 COVID Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act.

    The money helped bring back six employees to Bristol's DACRUZ Manufacturing, who were laid off when business took a hit during the pandemic. Husband and wife Victor and Betty DaCruz run the company.

  • Betty DaCruz:

    We had, you know, our supervisor coming in and saying, I don't have enough work. We had to, you know, make some changes in order to deal with our new reality.

  • Victor DaCruz:

    We had some people test positive here and we immediately shut down for six days. And and, you know, it was just all very scary throughout.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Orders for precision-machined parts started to pick up in the fall, and the DaCruz's said financial support from rev-up gave them the confidence to bring people back to work sooner. Today they have about 40 employees — still down from a peak of 48 in 2018.

  • Victor DaCruz:

    There's just a lot of unknowns. This is a pandemic. And so having some support from the state was great. And you know, we had laid off these people and we want to bring them back as soon as possible because before they would be, you know, before they would be taken by someone else. The biggest hindrance for us to grow is lack of of of technical skills and finding people we can get work, but you can't get you know, we can get machines but you can't get people.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Rev-Up ended at the end of 2020, the date when all CARES Act money had to be spent

  • Ron Angelo:

    Right now we're standing in our advanced design automation and metrology lab.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But Ron Angelo is hopeful that funds from the American Rescue Plan, enacted in March, will provide additional support.

  • Ron Angelo:

    Now we're talking about a Rev-Up program that will go maybe a couple of years. Whereas the last one, we really only had about six months to implement. So once we get that again, it's like putting gasoline on the fire. There's so much demand we have. We know the workforce that's out there that wants to get back to work, the company that needs them back. All we need to do is get that capital deployed for the companies and we'll start bringing a lot of people back to work.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And Victor DaCruz knows that employers can be a crucial part of that training process. He got his start after completing an apprenticeship in 1976.

  • Victor Dacruz:

    I came up through that. I actually made a business out of it. I've been a job creator for 40 years now, and I'm very proud of that.

  • Christopher Booker:

    This is the kind of future that aspiring machinist Khalia McClintock is hoping for.

  • Khalia McClintock:

    I just can't wait to have that certificate in my hand to see like I finished, you know. it gets my life on track where it should be. You know, it's been a very struggle for me. So it's like I need this.

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