On the road, there is one topic: jobs

WATERBURY–James H. Gatling took no pleasure in describing his corporation, New Opportunities Inc., with a workforce of 550, as one of the region’s largest employers.

New Opportunities is a non-profit provider of social services, and Gatling told two visiting legislative leaders Wednesday that its status as a major employer is all they need to know about Waterbury’s struggles since its brass mills closed.

For the second time in a week, Waterbury was the destination for a fact-finding mission from Hartford, where Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislators are prepping for a jobs summit on Oct. 6 and a special session on jobs three weeks later.

With an unemployment rate of 11.8 percent, the jobless rate in the Waterbury labor market is the highest in Connecticut, a state that has struggled to achieve net growth in jobs for more than 20 years.

A new governor is promising a new attitude towards business, and this city is as eager as any to see those words translate into action. For 10 consecutive years, in good times and in bad, it has led the state in unemployment.

Waterbury Regional Chamber

James H. Gatling, (r) listens as Mark E. Lancor (l) makes a point.

“We’re more than hanging off the cliff here,” said Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury.

“We have to do something, and we have to do it, like yesterday,” said Rep. Larry B. Butler, D-Waterbury.

Malloy and his commissioner of economic development, Catherine H. Smith, were here last week at Seidel Inc., an aluminum finishing company, looking for ideas for the special session that House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey says is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 26.

Since June 27, the governor and Smith have visited dozens of companies, ranging from farms and tourist sites, including Mystic Aquarium, Mystic Seaport and the state’s two casinos, to the helicopter manufacturer, Sikorsky Aircraft.

He has met with an association that represent independent colleges, a coalition of companies involved in hydrogen fuel cell technology, and groups that promote the arts.

Sharkey said the governor also is meeting with legislators.

“There is definitely a lot of outreach going on, and in a bipartisan fashion as well,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser. “The governor has been very clear: He wants this to be a productive special session. There is a lot of behind the scenes work, and more will be taking place.”

Legislators of both parties have been conducting their own jobs tours and business roundtable talks.

Sharkey and House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, met Wednesday with the Waterbury Regional Chamber.

They listened to pleas for better coordination between the curricula of technical schools and community colleges and the needs of employers, an issue Malloy frequently discusses. Officials also asked for help in redeveloping polluted “brownfield” sites that are a legacy of the city’s brass industry.

They were told some of the things that Malloy has been hearing on his stops: Broaden the governor’s “First Five” program, which provides major aid to big companies that can add at least 200 jobs, to smaller employers, and don’t give up on manufacturing.

Jack Traver, the owner of Traver IDC, a supplier of electrical apparatus to industry, told them that metal stamping and metal finishing companies still are viable in the Naugatuck Valley, even if the days of thousands of workers pouring out of cavernous red-brick mills at quitting time live on only in a Ken Burns’ documentary about wartime production in Waterbury.

Skilled tool-makers make $75,000 a year, and their average age is 58, Traver said.

Traver said there are no one-size-fits-all problems or solutions or hiring needs. Manufacturing might mean metal-stamping in the valley, aerospace around Hartford, and medical products along the shoreline.

Christopher A. Gallo, a partner in the accounting firm of BlumShapiro, told Donovan and Sharkey that navigating the state’s regulatory bureaucracy is daunting for new companies.

Sharkey told him that the Malloy Administration has been gathering information on permitting processes that can be streamlined.

Mark E. Lancor, a principal in an engineering and land surveying business, said his company has gone from 15 employees in 2008 to six. Aside from the downturn in real-estate development, his company is being hammered by health costs, he said.

His rates went up 32 percent since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, he said.

Lancor told the legislators that he can find only five companies in Connecticut willing to bid on his health coverage.

“If Hartford can do something to give me a choice…to me, that would be a huge, huge bonus,” he said.

Taxes did not come up, nor did the adoption this year of a mandate on some businesses to provide paid sick days, which was strongly opposed by the state’s largest business group, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

Rep. Jeff Berger, D-Waterbury, the co-chairman of the legislature’s Commerce Committee, said he was not surprised that no one raised paid sick days as an issue Wednesday.

“The attitude is, ‘Let’s not talk about rhetoric. Let’s talk about what we can do,’ ” Berger said.