Dan Haar: Debt diet vs. job training, a Connecticut death match

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, was a key sponsor of a $50 million job training program authorized by the legislature.

Doreen Hobson doesn’t know anything about Gov. Ned Lamont’s debt diet.

What she does know is that she applied for a factory job at Pratt & Whitney, paying twice what she makes in customer service at U-Haul. She aced the Pratt test — including math, which she never knew she was good at — and stands to land the position.

First, the 46-year-old New Haven mother of grown children must do well in a 5-week training program at Gateway Community College. It’s called Skill Up , financed by the state, designed by the Workforce Alliance, one of five federally designated job training agencies around Connecticut.

Pratt sent her to the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology in East Hartford, which told her about the Skill Up classes. Her pre-class aptitude test showed strong spatial reasoning skills, so now she’s on a short list of people to watch.

“They told me at that point that I would have an interview with Pratt,” Hobson said, to become an airfoil cell operator — after she takes the class.

The picture is unfolding the way it should. Trouble is, funding for a statewide ramp-up of programs such as Skill Up — known loosely as a jobs pipeline, or manufacturing pipeline — is caught up in Lamont’s effort to reduce state debt.

It would be great if giant manufacturers such as Pratt, Sikorsky and Electric Boat could turn green hopefuls into apprentice machinists without state help. Those days are long over.

Smaller machine shops that subcontract to make parts certainly can’t spend a lot of time or take long risks on people with no factory chops. And Connecticut no longer has a hefty subculture of men — yes, there were a few women as well — tinkering on machines in garages, feeding the hiring needs of metal-cutting shops.

And yet, manufacturers have as many as 6,000 open positions in the state, according to the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. State-sponsored training needs to be a piece of the puzzle.

“Years ago, there used to be tons of these kinds of programs, some of them run by the companies themselves,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a chief supporter of the new round of funding. “But they’ve been dismantled.”

Behind Osten’s push, the General Assembly in 2018 authorized $50 million for the pipeline programs, which represent a new type of job training, working much more closely with employers on what they need.

In his last-ever State Bond Commission meeting in December, former Gov. Dannel Malloy pushed out $5 million, including $3.5 million for the New Haven training program — which Hobson is set to start with a new class of 20 people on Sept. 9.

Now the rest of the money lies in limbo. Lamont doesn’t oppose the pipeline program as far as anyone can tell, but he’s trying to pare total state borrowing for non-transportation projects — including new schools, colleges, economic development, state facilities and community redevelopment — from about $1.7 billion a year to an even $1 billion.

The pipeline is the kind of thing that falls off when we talk about a “debt diet” — real opportunities for real people, a Hobson’s choice affecting people such as Hobson.

This isn’t a slam-dunk. Fifty million bucks seems like a huge wad of cash for job training, especially since government-run training has a spotty history. It tends to look good on websites and brochures, but matching up people with jobs that may or may not exist is less than an exact science.

Critics say borrowing money for ongoing state functions such as job training is dicey.

But Osten says this one is different; it’s for five years, to cover the whole state. At about $3,500 per person per class, which is less than a lot of private-sector training, plus administrative costs, the entire program could churn out maybe 12,500 graduates. Connecticut still has more than 100,000 factory workers, many of whom will retire in the next five years, so the numbers aren’t wild and crazy.

Make no mistake here. If Connecticut won’t do basic training to get thousands of would-be manufacturing workers in the door, you can be certain that Virginia, South Carolina and Florida will eagerly do it. This isn’t just about bettering the lives of workers; it’s about stopping the exit of manufacturers.

I would have thought by 2019 that job-training programs are pretty much all done in direct collaboration with big employers, down to handling specific tools. But no, the people behind the pipeline say it’s a new wave, a new way of thinking across the country, in which states and nonprofit agencies don’t just look at labor statistics and talk to a few people to figure out what employers want — they design the whole thing from the get-go with companies such as Electric Boat.

Connecticut’s version launched in 2015 under a federal grant at the Norwich-based workforce agency, the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board. That program, originally pitched for 450 slots, with Electric Boat committing to hire 350, has now placed 1,460 people in manufacturing jobs at dozens of companies.

“It’s a pretty big change and you have to have a close relationship with employers in your region,” said John Beauregard, CEO of ECWIB, as the workforce board is known.

It helps to have Electric Boat, with a Pentagon-backed production schedule of two attack submarines a year along with Newport News shipyard in Virginia, and a new Columbia class of strategic nuclear-armed subs now in design.

It’s been so successful that the U.S. secretaries of Labor under presidents Obama and Trump have both come calling, most recently former Secretary R. Alexander Acosta, before he was forced out in the Jefffrey Epstein scandal.

The beauty of it, according to Osten, Beauregard and others, is that the pipeline program can bend to fit any industry. It’s a method of designing training along with employers, not a manufacturing curriculum. And it reaches into high schools.

In Bridgeport, at The WorkPlace Inc., CEO Joseph Carbone takes a pragmatic view, saying he’s eager for new training slots but he’d want to be sure the program could work in Fairfield County before signing on.

Skill Up, the New Haven program that Hobson will join in September, is part of that first group of programs financed by the state with the initial $5 million. Bill Villano, CEO of Workforce Alliance, which runs it, sees the need strongly even without an Electric Boat in that part of the state.

“I agree with the governor that we need to be on a debt diet,” Villano said. “We have good manufacturing training programs in this state. The problem is they only produce about 600 graduates a year. ... We need to do something that ramps up our ability to produce a greater number of graduates.”

As Democrats such as Osten battle Lamont to not choke off investment in the state, job training is tough in part because it isn’t the kind of thing a state can stop and start as money comes in.

“That’s the trick of this, making sure that we as a state are ready,” Beauregard said.

Hobson said she’s ready. Born and raised in New Haven, she left Connecticut for many years and returned a decade ago. The likes of her, and the jobs they occupy, could exit for good, or stay. This month’s State Bond Commission meeting, set for Friday, has been canceled by Lamont.

Connecticut Media Group