Manufacturers collaborate to attract, retain post-pandemic workforce
This is the last in a series about the labor market in the Northwest Corner.
NORTH CANAAN — In 1961, Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD) opened a 25,000-square-foot facility on Grace Way in rural North Canaan with eight employees. The facility was specifically designed to manufacture the BD Syringe, the world’s first-ever fully sterile, single use disposable plastic syringe.
Six decades and a global pandemic later, the site has grown to 385,000 square feet where 450 associates are needed to keep the Northwest Corner’s largest employer operating around the clock, producing more than 2 billion medical devices each year that are sold worldwide.
Where there is growth, there are growing pains, and throughout the decades the company has faced pressure to retain and hire a skilled workforce to meet critical production demands.
“Since 1961, our employees have played a major role in responding to health care crises across the globe, from smallpox to H1N1 and most recently COVID-19 vaccinations,” said Dustin Andersen, plant manager at BD in North Canaan.
“Like many other companies, we’ve been closely monitoring the increasingly competitive labor market and associated labor shortages here,” said Andersen, who noted that staff retention is taken seriously by the company.
“In 2022 alone, three of our associates celebrated 45 years here in our facility, which is a true testament to the high value we put in our associates and their professional development. We take great pride in our legacy of contributing to the local community and its people.”
Even though BD maintains an average employee tenure of 11 years, according to Andersen, “we’re currently hiring 24 open positions here in Canaan,” including those for molding machine operators, CNC toolmakers, night crew mechanical technicians and microbiology laboratory technicians and various supervisory positions.
Lack of skills, proper work ethic cited as concerns
A number of factors are fueling the worker shortage, according to a Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) Aug-Sept. 2021 state manufacturing survey. They include the current wave of sector retirements, the state’s high cost of living, misperceptions about manufacturing as a career choice, and the need to continue aligning educational curricula with employer needs.
Thirty-six percent of manufacturers struggling to find workers said applicants do not possess the required skills or expertise for the job, 29% report candidates lack the proper work ethic, and 18% cite competition from other employers offering higher wages and/or more expansive benefits.
The CBIA survey also found that 43% of surveyed manufacturers want lawmakers to prioritize investments in education and vocational training programs, 18% support additional unemployment reform, 14% want lower taxes—including exempting training programs from the state sales tax—and 12% called for work incentives.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, manufacturers, facing a “silver tsunami’ of retirements, were working to address the worker shortage, said Chris DiPentima, CB
IA President and CEO.
A Deloitte and Manufacturing Institute’s 2022 Competing for Talent: Recasting Perceptions of Manufacturing study provides key insights into educating the public about benefits of manufacturing and how to attract and retain a post- pandemic workforce, according to a June report from CBIA.
“Those unfamiliar with manufacturing have minimal awareness of how modern technology, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, can make jobs safer and allow employees to do more productive work,” the report states.
BD Canaan, for example, is prioritizing highly-automated assembly lines, which require a technically skilled workforce.
“For many of these roles, no previous experience is required, and we’re fully committed to growing our talent through tools like apprenticeships and other training,” said Andersen.
The Deloitte report further reveals that while only 34 percent of the public believe entry-level manufacturing jobs tend to pay more than other industries, 66% of those who work in manufacturing believe that is true.
Northwest Regional Sector Partnerships formed
In the Northwest Corner, a coalition of manufacturers is working to make their industry more competitive by forming a Regional Sector Partnership (RSP). RSPs define their own agenda and tackle a range of issues important and sometimes unique to their region.
“This initiative is supported by the state and is intended to be a new way to manage resource support for five regions in Connecticut,” said Evan Berns, who chairs the Manufacturer’s Coalition, formed in 2013 under the umbrella of the Northwest Connecticut Chamber of Commerce.
“Each region identifies its needs,” he said, noting that three chambers of commerce — Northwest, Waterbury and Danbury — comprise the Northwest RSP.
Business leaders engage in peer-to-peer networking
“We have identified a couple hundred manufacturers with 50-plus employees, and another 100 with 50 employees or less. We are working on initiatives to address their needs,” said Berns, who served as CEO of Seitz LLC in Torrington until the company, which was founded in 1949, was acquired last year by the Arizona-based Molded Devices, Inc.
The first initiative includes workforce training, job readiness and career education targeting “junior and high schoolers on up, as well as vocational education or non-vocational education support.”
The RSP will focus on workforce availability aimed at guiding youth and underemployed toward choosing manufacturing as a career and encouraging youth to stay in the region or return to the region.
Berns said there is an “amazing network of resources” available to young people interested in pursuing a career in manufacturing, and the sector is positioning itself as an attractive option for workers.
“Those employed in the service industry are not going to get that kind of training and development to further their path into a successful career,” noted Berns.
According to the Deloitte report, the industry’s benefits and hourly wages performed better than retail and service sectors, and the tenure of a manufacturing employee is “among the highest when compared to other private-sector industries.”
The study revealed that average hourly earnings in 2021 for manufacturing were $30, retail $22 and services $28.
Additional RSP regional initiatives include eliminating transportation barriers for workers, particularly in the rural Northwest Corner, influencing local and state policy to support regional manufacturing needs and fostering growth in specific markets or technologies.
The Northwest RSP is also exploring ways to foster growth in specific markets or technologies, including medical, military, aerospace, automation and other markets, Berns explained.
The Manufacturer’s Coalition chairman said the Northwest RSP has developed a “Concierge Connection” comprising three individuals in the region: Pam LaRosa, director of the One-Stop Workforce Operation, Rocky Young, community service representative for the Connecticut Department of Labor (DOL) and Steve Gray program coordinator for the CT Workforce Investment Board.
“If local companies work with their chamber and communicate with Pam, Rocky and Steve, that will get them 90% of what they need, said Berns. “We are not looking for time from manufacturing leaders, we are just looking for their voice.”