Best of 2019: Connecticut looks for a future in its manufacturing past
Note: This story was originally published on October 21, 2019.
North Haven — An aerospace executive was introduced Monday by Gov. Ned Lamont as Connecticut’s first chief manufacturing officer, a private-sector voice inside a state administration that says manufacturing is resuming its role as an engine of growth after a quarter-century of wrenching change and loss.
The appointment of Colin Cooper, 59, an entrepreneur, executive and former design engineer credited with the tenfold growth of an Eastford aerospace supplier, the Whitcraft Group, comes as Connecticut is facing a welcome challenge — filling advanced manufacturing jobs available due to modest growth and a coming “silver tsunami” of retirements.
Aerospace companies alone have 1,000 job openings, and the state’s major manufacturers and smaller supply-chain players have locked in major roles in the next generation of aircraft, jet engines and associated products needed by commercial and defense customers, Cooper said.
Industry voices had been clamoring for a manufacturing champion who could exercise influence across state government, from the Department of Economic and Community Development to the elements of technical and higher education increasingly seen as crucial to the state capitalizing on the projected growth.
“We kept coming to same conclusion,” said Eric Brown, a vice president at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “There needs to be a champion in the administration from manufacturing itself.”
The leadership of the legislature’s Commerce Committee pushed hard for the new position, and Lamont and his commissioner of economic and community development, David Lehman, agreed to fund it. Cooper will begin the job in nine days, working at DECD.
Cooper said the timing was right for him. He and a partner at Whitcraft, a privately owned company in which Cooper still is an equity partner, were stepping back. Cooper had relinquished his role as chief executive, staying on during the transition as the “executive chairman.”
“It was a happy coincidence,” Cooper said.
“He gives the government a level of credibility that I’m not sure we’ve had in the past with the manufacturing community, and I think it’s important,” said Lehman, a former Goldman Sachs partner.
Cooper was peppered with questions during a press conference in the distribution warehouse of Ulbrich Stainless Steels & Speciality Metals. Towering racks of rolled wire and metals used by manufacturers of aerospace, medical and other advanced products provided a backdrop for Lamont, Lehman, Cooper and others.
“I know this feels like the final exam, but don’t worry, you’ve already got the job,” Lamont said. But he added he wants Cooper to answer, “What do we need to do? What aren’t we doing as well as we could?”
Connecticut had 305,100 manufacturing jobs in January 1990, when the state began to rapidly shed jobs related to the production of high-volume, lower-cost items. It didn’t hit bottom until April 2016, with 156,200 positions.
Driven by advanced manufacturing, the state has recorded 24 consecutive months of manufacturing growth, albeit modest. It reached 161,600 jobs in September, a seven-year high.
Cooper said the major impediment to growth is the supply of workers.
“All of us are bottle-necked right now,” Cooper said of manufacturers. “We can’t increase our output enough to meet the demand, and so if we can’t meet that demand here in Connecticut, it’s going to be someplace else. That demand will get met.”
Cooper said Connecticut made significant progress in the past decade. An advanced manufacturing program at Asnuntuck Community College places students as fast as they graduate, and a similar program is now offered at seven other community colleges.
“I think the community college system is a real gem in this state,” he said. “It is probably the most critical part of the educational infrastructure for manufacturers today. It really started with the development of the Asnuntuck program.”
Lehman said the importance of workforce development to the future of manufacturing was reflected in the panel assembled to interview Cooper and the two other finalists for the new post. It included representatives of the community colleges, the Office of Higher Education, the University of Connecticut, the Department of Labor and DECD.
Much of his job will entail ensuring a reliable supply of workers, Cooper said.
Machine shops across Connecticut are looking at decades of steady work in aerospace.
“As long as you perform, you’ve got an opportunity to run that for the life of the program, which can be 25 or 30 years,” Cooper said. “We’ve just gone through a generational change in terms of programs. A lot of Connecticut companies have locked in a ton of content, so the demand is there. We have to make sure we have the capacity to fill that demand.”
The state has major manufacturers with backlogs of defense contracts for submarines at Electric Boat and helicopters at Sikorsky Aircraft, plus a mix of defense and commercial demand for jet engines at Pratt & Whitney. But the manufacturing profile has changed.
The cavernous and clamorous manufacturing floors that employed tens of thousands in past generations are largely gone. Cooper says modern manufacturing is bright, clean and quiet.
Jack Crane of CONNSTEP, a CBIA affiliate, says 50 percent of the state’s manufacturers have no more than 10 employees.
Lamont said manufacturing has changed, but it remains an essential element of Connecticut’s DNA.
“This has been the home of manufacturing,” Lamont said. “We didn’t create Facebook. We didn’t create Google here in Connecticut, but we’ve always had the Silicon Valley of manufacturing. We’ve had the most sophisticated manufacturing in the world. That’s why we make jet engines. That’s why we make helicopters. That’s why we make submarines. That’s why we make things the other guys can’t make.”
Sign up for CT Mirror's free daily news summary.
Free to Read. Not Free to Produce.
The Connecticut Mirror is a nonprofit newsroom. 90% of our revenue comes from people like you. If you value our reporting please consider making a donation. You'll enjoy reading CT Mirror even more knowing you helped make it happen.YES, I'LL DONATE TODAY