Waterbury hopes rebuilding its manufacturing workforce will cut its region’s chronic unemployment

Waterbury — The past few decades have been tough on this formerly bustling manufacturing city.

After losing some 5,000 manufacturing jobs between 1989 and 1992, the region partially recovered, only to lose more than another thousand in the recession beginning in 2008. Today, the Waterbury region is in its third decade with an unemployment rate higher than the state average — just under 11 percent vs. more than 8 percent statewide — with around 11,000 people collecting unemployment.

Waterbury Manufacturing Chart

But business and political leaders have started to identify some trends and characteristics of the region’s unemployment — and this has spurred what some see as vital steps toward recouping some of the city’s former luster.

A basic first step is that the very definition of a manufacturing job has changed; and because of that, the workers must change, too: They must be more highly trained.

“A lot of that assembly work we knew is gone … the put-this-piece-here-and-that-there work,” said Deirdre Moutinho of Naugatuck Valley Community College.

Moutinho is in charge of recruitment and retention for the college’s new Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center set to open this fall.

Moutinho said the new facility, built with the help of a $5.3 million state grant, will offer a certificate in advanced manufacturing machine technology through a one-year program that teaches the basics of precision manufacturing. The goal is to begin to develop some of the highly skilled workers that industry needs.

The center will seek to retrain older workers as well as younger people.

Partnering with business

This fall, the center aims to enroll up to 60 students, who would graduate with a certificate in May 2013.

The program’s curriculum is based on a successful program started about 10 years ago at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Moutinho said. Asnuntuck’s manufacturing-training program has placed more than 1,000 graduates in jobs in the past decade, including 90 percent of qualified graduates within three months.

The certificate program of the new center comprises two semesters that will introduce the basics: bench work, grinding, drilling and sawing, and transition into advanced processes in milling, lathes and operating a CNC machine, which uses computer programming to automate machining processes.

Dierdre Moutinho

Deirdre Moutinho provides specifics about Naugatuck Valley Community College’s manufacturing program during an information session.

The Naugatuck center is partnering with about a dozen companies in the Waterbury area to provide support and internship opportunities for some of the students, Moutinho said. Several of these partners will host the students for field trips, as well.

Among the industry partners are several manufacturing companies that have been in the area for decades, including The Platt Brothers and Co., makers of zinc wire, zinc alloy and other products.

The center’s program is structured to give students insight into real-world situations by bucking the traditional college schedule and setting. Students will spend several full days working in computer labs and shop floors fitted with up-to-date technology, Moutinho said.

To stay relevant to the needs of local industry, an advisory committee brings together local officials, industry leaders and employment organizations.

“This manufacturing program will give you the basic good employee,” said George LaCapra, a local businessman and co-chairman of the center’s advisory council. “The hardest part is getting the soft skills needed in the employee,” LaCapra said. “It is up to the company to mold them to the culture of the company.”

The center will also train local high school students through a program that lets them spend part of their day at the college center, Moutinho said.

A career academy

Beyond the manufacturing center at Naugatuck Valley, other training options are available for high school students and displaced workers.

So many students have been applying to Kaynor Regional Vocational High School in recent years that many had to be turned away. So the city, with a specific aim at Waterbury high school-age students, plans to open the Waterbury Career Academy in 2013.

Although young adults and displaced middle-aged workers alike can enroll in the community college’s program, the Career Academy will train only high school students in trades.

But displaced workers, who are among a growing number of unemployed, can access other specifically targeted programs through a local organization whose programs have placed a number of workers.

“In fact, through a couple of programs sponsored by the Northwest Regional Workforce Investment Board in the past 18 months, there has been 146 people in manufacturing jobs who might otherwise not be working,” said Rich DuPont, who works with the group.

Ripple Affect

The manufacturing jobs are high-paying, Moutinho said. Some of these jobs average a salary of around $1,000 per week.

Providing skilled workers has implications outside the industry, too. DuPont said these well-paying jobs come with a multiplying factor.

“For every one manufacturing job they can make, they expect two to three jobs created in the service industry,” DuPont said.