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Has CT’s advanced manufacturing sector stopped advancing?

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Has CT’s advanced manufacturing sector stopped advancing?

Feb 26, 2024 | 4:07 pm ET
By Erica E. Phillips
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The General Assembly's Commerce Committee heard reports on the state of advanced manufacturing in Connecticut. COURTESY / CT-N
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The General Assembly’s Commerce Committee heard reports on the state of advanced manufacturing in Connecticut.

Connecticut’s advanced manufacturing workforce and innovation efforts are falling behind those of other states as new technology — like automation, robotics and A.I. — transforms global industry, according to a recent report presented to the legislature’s Commerce Committee. 

The study, conducted by Ernst & Young with Connecticut manufacturing consultancy CONNSTEP, found that critical manufacturing sectors in the state are experiencing declining jobs and a lack of capital to help innovative companies grow. It also concluded that, absent coordinated efforts to invest in new technology and train the next-generation workforce, Connecticut could soon lose much of its advanced manufacturing business to other states and regions. 

“[It] looks to me like a ticking time bomb,” Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, said at the presentation’s conclusion.

Manufacturing accounts for about 160,000 jobs in Connecticut, just over a third of which are in the advanced fields of shipbuilding, aerospace and medical devices — the focus of EY’s report. And while those jobs make up just 3.1% of the state labor force, they have an outsized impact on the economy. 

In any state economy, most of the workforce is focused on serving the local population in fields like health care, education, government and hospitality, said EY Partner Andrew Phillips, who presented the report. “Economic growth has to come from export-serving industries … things that can be sold to customers outside the state,” he said. 

Those industries are faltering, the report found. In aerospace and medical devices, Connecticut’s workforce has declined since 2011; more than a third of workers in those fields are now 55 or older. And it takes seven to eight years to train young people for specialized careers in those fields. 

“There are likely to be some talent pressures over the next 10 years in these two sectors, just to maintain the current level of activity,” Phillips said.

New advancements in manufacturing technology are also applying pressure, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses in Connecticut’s supply chain. 

[RELATED: Tech is changing Connecticut manufacturing. Can businesses keep up?]

Connecticut’s large-scale manufacturers — like General Dynamics Electric Boat, RTX’s Pratt & Whitney and Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky — buy a healthy portion of component parts from thousands of supply chain companies in the state, but many of those components aren’t all that complicated to make, Phillips said. 

“They tend to be either somewhat knowledge-intensive or less knowledge-intensive inputs, meaning relatively basic,” he said, such as “metal products, hardware, parts, screws, bolts, nuts” — as opposed to today’s more advanced components like semiconductors and precision equipment.

That leaves Connecticut’s industry vulnerable to competition from producers in other states and regions who can manufacture similar goods at a lower cost.

“In a decade or two decades, those commoditized products probably won’t continue to exist in a state that doesn’t have a competitive cost structure and relatively low cost of labor,” Phillips said. 

There is plenty of high-tech innovation and research happening in Connecticut, said CONNSTEP Chief Executive Beatriz Gutierrez. The problem is that many of those innovators wind up seeking venture capital investment and launching their companies outside of the state, in places like Massachusetts, New York or California, where the “ecosystem” for commercializing new technology is more established, she said. Or they simply never bring those products to market.

Connecticut ranked third in the number of patents produced per 1,000 STEM workers, the report found. But it came in 27th in a measure of product innovation, or the share of Connecticut companies that introduced new or improved products to the market between 2017 and 2020. 

“We do know that there’s a significant level of failure for these products,” Gutierrez said. “Having a patent doesn’t mean having a successful commercialized product.”

Future advancement

Still, Gutierrez said she didn’t want to offer only “a message of doom.” Connecticut’s public and private sectors are making important investments to develop high-tech industry in the state, she said.

Gutierrez highlighted several programs within her organization and the Department of Economic and Community Development’s Office of Manufacturing, as well as the state college and university system and the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology. She also pointed to the nonprofit FORGE, which helps startups commercialize their products — free of charge.

“Connecticut is punching above his weight on investment in these areas,” she said.

This legislative session, the Commerce Committee is hearing a handful of bills that seek to foster innovation in the state, including a small business tax credit for research and development costs and the creation of a new Office of Innovation within DECD.

The committee is also weighing the recommendations of a working group it assigned to develop plans for the new advanced manufacturing education center at CT State Tunxis. 

That group wants to bolster the workforce pipeline for highly technical manufacturing jobs in robotics and automation by building a robotics laboratory at Tunxis and establishing a mechatronics program there, modeled after the one at CT State Asnuntuck. They envision the program would offer dual-credit opportunities for high school students as well as apprenticeships with a “consortium” of local-area manufacturing companies. 

It would cost roughly $4 million to complete the lab and $1 million annually to run the educational programs, which would serve as many as 48 students a year, the working group reported. 

“Establishing the public-private partnership, we are trying to do that,” said Mark Burzynski, a member of the working group and a recruiting advisor with the Arthur G. Russell Co. “We need the public part of that.”

The working group also wants to transform leftover warehouse space at Tunxis’ advanced manufacturing facility into a community center where middle school and high school FIRST Robotics teams can collaborate and compete. 

“There are thousands of kids involved in youth robotics. There’s 10 high school FIRST Robotics teams within 10 miles of Tunxis,” Burzynski said. “The robotics community center [is], we believe, the best way to bring targeted students to the program, show them the program, fully engage them there.”

Commerce Co-Chair Rep. Stephen Meskers, D-Greenwich, expressed support for the role of the private sector in developing curriculum and programming at the state colleges and universities. “We need people who are in front of the wave to explain how we can catch the wave,” he said.

But Meskers acknowledged that securing the support of CT State — particularly as the system faces major budget shortfalls this year — could be a sticking point. “I think there might be a territorial and jurisdictional friction between granting the private sector corporations some access to the university system,” Meskers said.

“I know that’s going to be hard because you’ll be working on breaking down agency barriers, but I’d like to see what we could do there.”