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In Connecticut, manufacturing jobs go begging

By Harlan Levy
Journal Inquirer Of Manchester / October 30, 2011

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MANCHESTER, Conn.—Lalit Radia and his wife, Bina, who moved recently to Glastonbury from India, were in the waiting room of GE Aviation's Parker Street plant on Thursday with applications for machinist jobs.

Each has 10 years' experience in a paper and printing plant, and they're hoping to get two of the 10 machinist and welding jobs that GE Aviation's Parker Street and Adams Street plants have been trying to fill for several months without success.

Jet-engine orders have picked up, and GE Aviation's Randy Lynn needs computer numerical control machinists immediately.

""The experience we're looking for, that skill set is hard to find these days," he said. "We're looking for CNC machinists with a high level of experience, and everyone in manufacturing in Connecticut will tell you the same thing: There aren't as many around as 10 years ago, and everybody is looking for the same skill set."

The GE plants -- with 343 workers at Parker Street, 100 at Adams Street -- have two shifts and fabricate sheet metal and make engine liners and afterburner liners for commercial and military aircraft. GE expects the increased order volume to continue into next year, and it may need to add a third shift. The starting salary is more than $19 an hour.

But GE Aviation's been trying to fill some of its vacant jobs for more than three months.

"We're having a tough time finding experienced machinists," GE Aviation spokeswoman Deborah Case said. "There's a big need for that skill set, and we're competing against lots of companies in the region also looking for experienced machinists."

"Because Pratt & Whitney is in the area, a lot of suppliers compete for the same talent," GE Aviation Manchester Human Resources Manager Dixie Bingham said. "Our competition is having a tough time as well.

Indeed, GE Aviation is far from alone.

"There are at least 1,000 unfilled jobs in manufacturing," Connecticut Business and Industry Association Education Foundation Director Judith Resnick said, "and the large proportion of them are for skilled machinists."

According to CBIA's summer survey, 87 percent of 273 advanced manufacturers listed computer numerically controlled programmers as the hardest jobs to fill. Seventy-nine percent said the third most difficult were CNC machinists. The sixth most difficult to find were general machinists.

"Manufacturing is taking us out of the recession," Resnick said, "but it's frightening, because we have the opportunity -- orders are on the uptick, and we're exporting more -- but to continue to be economically competitive we have to have skilled individuals who can do the work. If we don't, where are the orders going to go? Ultimately, they may have to move where there's a more plentiful supply."

GE has run ads, participated in job fairs, used employee referrals, and has been working with Manchester Community College and Asnuntuck Community College with little luck.

The hiring quest at GE was sparked by escalating production of General Electric's state-of-the-art lightweight, fuel-efficient GEnx-2B engine, which the Manchester plants played a key role in creating. Production of the GEnex, GE Aviation's fastest-selling jet engine, is "dramatically ramping up," officials said, with more than 1,300 orders for 47 customers on the Boeing 747-8 and the Boeing 787.

Last week, Luxemburg cargo carrier Cargolux became the first customer to receive the first two Boeing 747-8 cargo planes powered by the Genx. GEnx deliveries in 2011 are expected to exceed 140, up from 67 in 2010, with more than 200 expected in 2012, GE officials said.

The influx of engine orders follows the industry slump in the recession starting in 2008.

"We were still getting orders, but not at the same levels as in 2006 and 2007 when the industry had record orders," Case said. "Now those record orders are actually being produced."

GE Aviation is "getting back on par with our levels prior to the recession," Case said, "so we're optimistic that a recovery is happening in our business."

The problem is finding qualified workers.

"The schools are trying to keep up with the need, but there is more need than there are people," Bingham said. "What we're looking at in 2012 is partnering with colleges and developing an apprenticeship program where we will train in-house to supply our needs that we know will grow in the future."

Meanwhile, Bingham said, the shortage will continue "because I don't think the schools are seeing as much interest in manufacturing as they did a couple of years ago."

That's why GE is also considering going into the high schools to develop an interest in manufacturing.