Aircraft supports Ct. manufacturing

ROB VARNON rvarnon@ctpost.com

Article Last Updated: 01/04/2008 09:33:34 PM EST

The need for military and civilian helicopters and jet engines will remain the driving force behind a more stable Connecticut manufacturing industry in 2008. "Aerospace is doing very well," said Kenneth Dugan, president of the New Haven Manufacturers Association and of Milford-based Prestige Tool Mfg. Co.

Stratford-based helicopter maker Sikorsky Aircraft and East Hartford-based jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney appear to be anchoring the state's manufacturing base by winning civilian and military contracts. The two United Technologies Corp. subsidiaries rely on a large number of smaller, independent companies throughout the state to build their final products.

"We're coming off a banner year," said Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson. "We delivered more aircraft than ever and ended the year with a backlog exceeding $9 billion in orders. In Connecticut, we increased employment by about 10 percent."

Jackson said it would be premature to speculate on job growth this year, but the company is expecting to expand its business.

One problem Sikorsky has, which other aerospace companies have also cited, is a lack of capacity, Jackson said. With so many orders, the company's factories in Connecticut are choked with work.

Jackson said steps were taken in 2007 to reapportion floor space in the company's Stratford and Bridgeport facilities to allow for more aircraft assembly.

Brian Koppy, corporate communications director of aerospace parts maker Barnes Group Inc., said it's been difficult for his company to find workers, an issue the New Haven Manufacturers Association also said is a problem.

Koppy said business is strong and his Bristol-based company has orders from not just Pratt, but also General Electric Co. and Rolls Royce. Those companies are, in turn, building jets for Boeing and Airbus, he said.

Connecticut remains a good place for this type of work, Koppy said, for a pretty simple reason. "It's really the work force ... The work is very sophisticated."

Despite this need, manufacturing continues to suffer a negative image with younger people, according to Dugan. Many people still think factory work is dirty and sweaty, he said, but those days are long gone.

The industry has also had problems attracting workers because of concerns about job security. But Dugan said job cuts have hammered the service sector as well, so it seems unfair to say there's less job security working in a factory than in an office. Many Connecticut factory jobs require technically skilled workers who remain in high demand, he said.

Bill Griffin, Housatonic Community College's academic coordinator, said the Bridgeport-based college is so confident in the need for highly skilled factory workers that it began a new program in manufacturing technology in 2005. The college is going to hire an industrial outreach coordinator this year to work with area schools, he said.

HCC is holding two seminars this month, including one Thursday beginning at 4:30 p.m., that will allow people interested in a career in manufacturing to try their hand at working with a machine. It will also feature a discussion of what factory work has become in the 21st century.

In the coming years there will be 19 job categories in manufacturing that will need an influx of workers, either because of retirements or because of an expansion in technology, he said. Aerospace, he added, is one of those areas.

Griffin said the need for CNC, or computer numerical control, machine operators is already growing across manufacturing industries in the state.

HCC isn't alone in spreading the word about manufacturing's needs. The New Haven Manufacturers Association is sponsoring a series of forums this month and next to discuss the economic impact of manufacturing here and trends, including adoption of more environmentally friendly technology. The first forum — on the economic contributions of the industry — will be at The Graduate Club in New Haven on Thursday, beginning at noon. The lunch program costs $12 for members and $17 for others.

While Dugan said aerospace is probably the state's strongest manufacturing sector, commercial product makers, like his company, are also doing well.

He said Prestige has a solid backlog of orders to keep it as busy as it was in 2007. Prestige employs seven and makes commercial products, including battery equipment.

But not everything is rosy for manufacturing, said John Tirinzonie, a state Labor Department economist.

Tirinzonie said gains in aerospace jobs were not enough to overcome losses in chemical, pharmaceutical and other factories last year.

There were 191,000 factory workers in Connecticut in November 2007, which is about 2,000 less than in November 2006. Figures for December will be released Jan. 17.

Tirinzonie said the closing of Bayer Pharmacuetical's plant in West Haven and Hershey's decision to shut down its plant in Naugatuck hurt not just employees of those companies but also smaller manufacturers and service businesses.

Despite the job losses, Tirinzonie said Connecticut's manufacturing sector outperformed that of the nation, a trend he expects to continue in 2008.

Bill Griffin of Housatonic Community College can be reached at 332-5056.

For information about New Haven Manufacturers Association programs call Jerry Clupper at 387-5121 or visit www.newhavenmanufacturers.com.