There were two points U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta stressed several times throughout his visit to Eastern Connecticut on Tuesday: It's crucial to promote what he calls "demand-driven education," and that manufacturing wages have gone up more than wages for any other sector in Connecticut.
At the request of Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Acosta visited the region to learn more about the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative run through the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board.
Along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., they toured the manufacturing center at Quinebaug Valley Community College, partook in a roundtable at the Montville American Job Center and did a closed-to-the-press tour of Electric Boat. Gov. Ned Lamont joined them for the roundtable.
"One of the things I think is unique about this program is the level of cooperation between Electric Boat and the community college system," Acosta told reporters. "The educators are going to the employers, those that are hiring, and saying, 'What do you need?'"
Acosta noted there are 7.1 million jobs open nationwide — outnumbering those who are seeking jobs by 1 million.
The Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative addresses the skills gap by providing free classes — such as design engineering, welding and pipefitting — that each run several hours every weekday for several weeks. The program has gotten federal, state and private funding.
To get into the program, one must be certified as unemployed or underemployed. EWIB President John Beauregard said this is because coordinators don't want employers taking from one another, as that does nothing to help the supply chain.
Since the first graduating class in May 2016, the program has yielded 1,311 job placements, mostly at Electric Boat but also at about 190 other employers. Eighty percent of MPI graduates had no prior manufacturing experience, and the starting wage is about $16 to $18 per hour, Beauregard said.
He likes to use the mantra of former Porsche CEO Peter Schutz: "Hire character, train skill." The pipeline, he said, is a "just-in-time delivery" model that allows educators to run certain classes as employers need them.
"Those are fairly unusual concepts for a lot of academic institutions," Acosta said.