Waterbury – In an area that used to be at the heart of manufacturing in the state – the same area plagued with the state’s highest unemployment rate for many years – steps are being taken sustain and grow the industry.

In the fall, the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at the Naugatuck Valley Community College is opening with the express goal of training some of the region’s hundreds of jobless people.

Since late 2008, manufacturing jobs have decreased in the area by nearly 20 percent – down from a high just below 10,000.

Patrick Flaherty, an economist with the state’s labor department, said there was a “pretty vertical drop in manufacturing jobs, both statewide and in Waterbury,” after the start of the recession. But he said a very slight increase has been a sign of life in the industry.

The area’s unemployment, averaging higher than 10 percent for the past few years, was a signal to action for Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary.

“Finally we are recognizing what’s wrong and admitting we have a problem,” O’Leary said; adding their plan is to move forward, not just stick to the status quo.

Breaking down the demographics, O’Leary said a majority of those unemployed in the city are 18 to 25 years old, but there were a growing number of middle-aged workers and older who have been displaced in this economy.

One of those displaced workers, Lou Nicolett, lived in the Waterbury area for about 40 years, working in the manufacturing industry before he was laid off earlier this year from his job as a purchasing manager.

Nicolett has years of experience in the field, but has sent out more than 60 applications with little success.

There was a time if you lost your job in manufacturing, you could walk down the street and find another in the area, but those times have changed, he said.

Despite what was a bleak trend for the manufacturing industry, O’Leary said the area has a significant manufacturing base they want to keep.

In order for that to happen, many in the industry have told the mayor that they need the right kind of workforce in order to sustain and grow.

The manufacturing employee’s average age in the area is around 50 years old, according to Rich DuPont, chairman of the Waterbury Regional Chamber’s manufacturing council, putting additional stress on the industry to find new talent.

There is no shortage of workers, young or middle-aged, in the area looking for their first or second career, according to O’Leary, but DuPont said the industry is not finding the skilled workers they need.

“This is not anything new, we have watched opportunity after opportunity pass by, we just don’t have enough skilled people to fill the jobs we need to take advantage of these opportunities (for growth),” DuPont said.

Naugatuck Valley Community College, located in Waterbury, plans to open their doors in the fall to the new manufacturing center to help fill that void.

Building this Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center, which will offer advanced certificate programs, was in direct response to a call from the industry, said DuPont.

But the goal of this program and others is not only to train those fresh out of high school, O’Leary said, it offers a chance for adults looking for a second career to find a place in a different field.

A trend is popping up at community colleges and other schools of middle-aged and older adults seeking more training.

O’Leary, who was the chairman of the college’s advisor board, said during the last graduation cycle he was surprised to see the growing number of adults outside the traditional college age graduating.

Deborah Klein, who is 62, is one of those displaced adults in the Waterbury area who used community college as the gateway to a potential second career.

She moved to Waterbury in 2009 with her then-fiancée after being out of work since the previous year, but could not secure full-time employment.

Through her research, she noticed growth in pharmacy technician jobs, and earlier this year she finished a program at Tunxis Community College.

Other programs exist for displaced adults to find new jobs, including those run and supported by the Northwestern Regional Workforce Reinvestment Board.

Through this non-profit group, displaced adults looking for a second career have taken part in retraining in fields that need skilled employees.

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

But training and retraining adults after secondary school is not the only plan for Waterbury, which by itself accounts for the most unemployed in the area.

O’Leary said the regional vocational school was getting so popular it was hard for students to get in, so the city came up with a plan.

In 2013, the Waterbury Career Academy will open, offering offer kids in Waterbury the opportunity to train for a career in manufacturing, and other trades while still in high school.

But fulfilling the need for skilled workers just does not play into the health of the manufacturing industry; 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.

This could prove helpful for Barb Allvin, a life-long resident of Waterbury, who lost her job at Waterbury Hospital several months ago when 75 people lost their jobs following a merger announcement with St. Mary’s Hospital.

Despite having extensive experience that came with her job as the executive assistant to the president of the hospital, she has not been able to find a job.

The recession was not what put the area above the state’s average; it had been there for more than 20 years.

The city has the motto, “What’s more lasting then brass?” but when the brass industry began to leave in the 1980s, so did the jobs.

The manufacturing industry in Waterbury was booming until the late 1980s and early 1990s when a number of companies left the area, according to a report from the state Department of Labor.

“Between 1989 and 1992, approximately 10,000 area jobs were lost, with half of these being manufacturing jobs.” the report reads.

During this time, the unemployment rate jumped above 10 percent, similar to what was found in the area recently.

But with an influx of government money for municipal projects and the opening of the Brass Mill Center Mall, the jobless rate leveled off around 6 percent, still above the state average, the report said.

This mixed success for the area, marked with high unemployment rates, has caused O’Leary and those of the city to rethink what the area will be, while keeping a strong emphasis on manufacturing.

He believes that the area has turned the corner economically, and that they’re poised for economic boost in the future.

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