OLD SAYBROOK — Removing her large welding mask and heavy-duty gloves, Kathryn Mica took a break from welding metal rings onto panels Friday morning in one corner of Sound Manufacturing’s 50,000-square-foot factory floor in Old Saybrook.
“I always worked with kids. I’m a former educator who always had an interest in the arts and a passion for metal working, but I never had the opportunity to pursue it,” said Mica, 25, of East Haddam, adjusting her leather cape sleeve, a protective garment covering her arms and shoulders. “So when I did my research and found this, I really jumped on it.”
Mica is one of two women and 14 hires at Sound Engineering who found their jobs through the Eastern Connecticut Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative, a program that aligns education and training with employer needs in the trades such as welding, machining, pipefitting, design and drafting.
After taking a skills assessment, Mica enrolled in a welder-fabricator training program in January through Three Rivers Community College, a “full-immersion” course designed by employers to develop skills that are in demand.
“The second day they had us welding,” she said. “It was kind of scary at first striking my arc, but getting over that first hump of fear, and getting in there, I felt like I was almost a natural in there.”
Mica, who said she had never worked in manufacturing before, was employed by April.
“I came in here for my welding test and they gave me the job the next day,” she said.
The pipeline program has made 1,423 job placements since 2016 in more than 220 companies, according to the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board. The courses are 150 to 300 hours in length and 92 percent of graduates receive a job offer immediately.
So that’s how we can reconcile the notion of a debt diet. And the investments we need to make in programs like this, are very small relative to the payoff we get for employees and employers. So it’s the bang for the buck — we get a lot out of investing in public training – State Treasurer Shawn Wooden
At around $14 to $15 per hour, Mica said the pay was “better than I expected,” but her focus was on her long-term job growth.
“Just the opportunity is above anything for me — the experience and the opportunity are worth more than a paycheck for me,” she said.
That particular Friday, Shawn Wooden, the Connecticut State Treasurer, was also touring the facility and meeting employees who had arrived through the “pipeline” as well as their mentors and teachers.
Wooden acknowledged the Lamont administration’s “debt diet,” but said the pipeline program was essential to growing Connecticut’s economy.
“We need to focus on priorities even as we rein in spending. We still have to make investments in the right priorities,” he said. “I believe strongly in workforce development, and in particular, programs that demonstrate that they are successful, that they are one of the right priorities that will grow our state and grow our economy. So that’s how we can reconcile the notion of a debt diet. And the investments we need to make in programs like this, are very small relative to the payoff we get for employees and employers. So it’s the bang for the buck — we get a lot out of investing in public training.”
Working smarter not harder
Mike Jacaruso, Quality Manager at Sound Engineering, helped set up the welding program at Three Rivers where Mica gained her training and also teaches in-house classes once or twice a week, including principles of “working smarter not harder.”
“They teach the more basic skills and when the graduates get here, we streamline it to what we do,” he said. “Everyone in the shop agrees, there’s no sense in making a part faster if the part isn’t good in the end. We always say there’s always time to make the part the second time, so there should be time to make it right the first time.”
Jacaruso said the traditional system of learning from older, more experienced workers is gone — and few job candidates have the necessary skills — meaning that the “pipeline” programs are more necessary than ever.
“There was no school back then, you learned from mentors, if they would teach you,” he said. “There are no skilled people — a whole generation walked out in the 90s — the baby boomers’ parents, and the kids today didn’t learn, a whole generation was missed and anyone who does have skills, they’re working somewhere.”
He said he looks for strong interpersonal skills, such as reliability and willingness to learn, and after that, “we’re willing to invest in that person… in six months they can show pretty good progress and a couple of years before they have a good understanding of all the different metals, and at least one machine thoroughly, all the blueprints, all the measuring and all the things that go along with it.”
Wanted: A job with flexibility
For some workers, like welder Theresa Grills, 37, of Waterford, a single mother who studied alongside Mica at Three Rivers, flextime was a key in finding full-time employment — and Sound Manufacturing was able to accommodate her schedule.
“For me at 37, with kids, to go back and do schooling for years was impossible. The manufacturing pipeline was hard but it was a lifesaver” — Theresa Grills, a graduate of the short intensive training program
“They were the one place that would work with my hours. I have two kids and I need some flexibility — they’re both in before- and after-school programs,” Grills said. “Most of these jobs start at 6:30 or 7 a.m., but I can’t drop my kids off earlier than 7, so they allowed me to come in a little later and in turn I stay a little later every day.”
Grills said that she had been bartending for nearly 20 years and had never had a paid vacation or holiday until starting her manufacturing job.
“Now I have holidays and vacation time and benefits — that’s something I’ve never had. For the Fourth of July we had the 4th and the 5th off, so I can hang out with my family and it’s never been that way,” she said. “For me at 37, with kids, to go back and do schooling for years was impossible. The manufacturing pipeline was hard but it was a lifesaver.”
Her son, 11, and daughter, 7, also like her new profession.
“My son loves the fact that I’m welding, he thinks it’s the coolest thing. He’s my little engineer. He wants to work for Boeing. My daughter calls it my ‘dirty work,’” she laughed.
Something different every day
Kelli-Marie Vallieres, president and CEO of Sound Manufacturing, said the pipeline program has “really helped us” find the right employees. She also leads the Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance, a consortium of 70 employers.
The company moved to the Old Saybrook location last October.
“We’re a precision sheet metal contract manufacturer and we do work with about 150 different companies,” Vallieres said. “Some parts we make are little component parts for items that the companies make and for other customers we make an entire unit and everything that goes in it.”
The majority of the company’s work involves industrial applications such as insulation blowing machines, overhead signs, and telecommunications, as well as medical, safety lighting, automotive applications.
The orders and the work are constantly changing, requiring a workers to master a wide range of skills, she said.
“We’re making small quantities — sometimes 50 — up to thousands. And our work on the shop floor changes every single day. It’s never the same out there,” she said. “Our operators are always working on something different all the time.”
Adapting to a changing marketplace
Marco Piacenti, production manager, said the nature of manufacturing has changed and the workforce has been forced to adapt.
“My biggest difference that I see today versus when I started 20 years ago, is the customer base has changed. 20 years ago there were a lot of high-volume jobs,” he said. “These machines were made to run in high production unattended — set it up… let it run for three days.”
But, customers don’t want to keep inventory on hand anymore. Instead, orders come in on an as-need basis with tight deadlines, he said.
“We’re constantly setting up the machines because the quantities are not that high. It’s the same product we used to make 20 years ago, but say 20 years ago they were ordering 2,000 parts and now they’re only ordering 100 and they need it two weeks from now,” he said.
“We’re constantly setting up the machines because the quantities are not that high. It’s the same product we used to make 20 years ago, but say 20 years ago they were ordering 2,000 parts and now they’re only ordering 100 and they need it two weeks from now” – Marco Piacenti, production manager at Sound Manufacturing in Old Saybrook
The new paradigm requires skilled workers who can operate all types of machines, he said.
“In this field, we have to turn over machines a lot more frequently and that’s where the skilled operator is necessary because now you rely on him,” he said. “You need a guy who can do the setup. Twenty years ago you probably could have gotten away with two guys setting up the machine and let it run for five days. It doesn’t work that way anymore.”
More responsibility, more challenges
For Ian Dadona, 32, of Colchester, who started working at the company in January, learning how to operate multiple machines is a match for his career goals.
“My goal is to know everything in the shop, every machine they have here, to be able to get proficient enough at each machine that I know what I’m doing,” said Dadona, who was offered a two-year apprenticeship program in sheet metal fabrication after he’d been on the job for six months.
Working at the company has given him a new perspective on employment after years of experiencing seasonal work opportunities.
“I was landscaping for a long time and got laid off in the winters so I looked into Pipeline Initiative, and I took a seven-week course in manufacturing,” he said. “When I first started working here, I had knowledge of power tools and everyday I’m learning something new. They’re giving me more responsibility as I go, and the more comfortable I get with the machines, the more challenges they’re giving me.”