For Ashley Roman, the choice to go into Platt Technical High School’s precision manufacturing program was an easy one.
“It’s fun. It’s interesting, and it offers a lot of jobs,” said the junior from Milford.
Roman is one of the 1,500 high school students studying manufacturing in the state, and when she graduates, manufacturers will likely be lining up to hire her.
“It’s very difficult to find people with these skills. We’ve put numerous advertisements out and have had no luck,” said Michelle Allison, the owner of a small manufacturing company in Bloomfield.
That may soon change. Lawmakers are lining up behind initiatives to increase interest and participation in manufacturing programs — as was evidenced in Hartford last week at “Manufacturing Mania” day where nearly 1,000 students from across the state were introduced to manufacturing.
Patricia A. Ciccone, superintendent for the state’s 17 vocational-technical high schools, reports that if her manufacturing shops were being fully utilized, her schools could enroll 600 more students each year to train for these high-demand jobs.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy — who spearheaded the opening of three new manufacturing training programs at three community colleges last year — said he supports increasing enrollment in high school, too.
“I think that expansion is a good idea. But when we’re expanding, I think we need to talk about expanding in the areas that represent our state’s needs,” Malloy told reporters earlier this month after the State Bond Commission voted to pay to replace some of the outdated equipment at three vocational high schools.
During the past six years the tech schools received $32 million from the state to buy new equiptment and for building repairs, according to the State Department of Education. The schools have received $20.1 million this year alone.
And tech school officials hope new funding continues to flow. The system is asking the state for $15.7 million over the next five years to replace the existing manufacturing equipment and expand participation. Additionally, as the schools undergo major renovations, Ciccone said she’s focusing on expanding manufacturing opportunities in some schools.
“We have monster projects to support the expansion,” she told the State Board of Education at its most recent meeting. “Manufacturing is increasingly the area we need to move into.”
The state’s 5,000 manufacturing companies report they are struggling to fill their open positions. Collectively, they had 1,000 positions that remained open earlier this year because they had no qualified applicant to hire, reports the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.
“Companies depend on a pipeline of skilled workers to operate their technologies, engineer innovation and drive productivity gains… There are serious concerns about the state’s ability to keep that pipeline filled,” said the CBIA’s most recent report on manufacturing.
A survey found that nearly half the state’s manufacturers have trouble finding qualified workers and 26 percent are not confident they will.
Malloy did add a caveat to increasing manufacturing enrollment in the state’s vocational programs, saying, “There are other things that are taught in these programs that may not be as good an idea. Judgments have to be made about that.”
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said manufacturing programs are the vocational schools’ seventh biggest program — behind hairdressing, cullinary and automotive.
“Can we help reposition the system?” Pryor asked.
It will be up to him and his board to decide how to better align the schools’ programs — and the skills of their graduates — with what employers need.