Housatonic Community College works to train manufacturing workers

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Reminders of the manufacturing that once built southwestern Connecticut mark Fairfield County. In some cases, the names on products reflect on where they were once made. In others, neighbors are reminded of what once was by the hulking shells of what were once bustling factories.

Yet Connecticut ranks second in the country for high-tech manufacturing, with 168,000 jobs, many of which will soon be vacant. Experts are calling it a “gray tsunami.” Highly skilled workers are nearing retirement age, and some 5,000 companies are scrambling to find trained replacements.

Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport is among the state schools working to fill that rapidly approaching need through its Advanced Manufacturing Center. The 2012 Economic Growth and Job Creation Bill included $17.8 million in a competitive grant awarded to Asnuntuck, Quinnebaug, Housatonic, and Naugatuck Valley community colleges.

The jobs are out there, and they can be lucrative. According to statistics provided by the Advanced Manufacturing Center, there are openings for 750 manufacturing jobs in Bridgeport and New Haven. In 2010, the average worker in the field earned $77,186.

Programs such as the Advanced Manufacturing Center at HCC are targeted to displaced workers, those already in manufacturing, those looking to transition to another career, veterans, graduates of traditional and technical high schools, and students and graduates of the colleges.

Students in the first cohort range in age from a 15-year-old who was homeschooled to a 62-year-old looking for a career change, according to Gene LaPorta, former Platt Tech principal now serving as outreach coordinator the Advanced Manufacturing Center.

The program is less like school, more akin to on-the-job training.

“It’s a vigorous program,” said Director Michael Gugger. “There are classes and labs 35 hours a week. It’s like a full-time job.”

Those who complete studies at the Advanced Manufacturing Center, while not as well versed in the skills as those who attend the state’s four-year technical high schools, have an understanding of the language and machines, said Kris Lorch, president of Alloy Engineering, based in Bridgeport since 1958.

“They’ve done a terrific job with the adults to give them the language and skills necessary to start an intensive training program on the job,” Lorch said.

Classes include introduction to computer-aided design, blueprint reading, math, and lessons in using the machines located in the facility.

“They understand the demands of the work, what difference 1-1,000th of an inch can make,” Gugger said of the students.

The program spans two semesters over nine months, culminating with the awarding of a certificate. Students could study further toward associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.

The immersion continues when students pursue internships, further preparing them for life after the program.

The Advanced Manufacturing Center also offers companies in the area a chance to test machinery they might be considering purchasing, and a chance to train current staff on equipment that might soon be part of the process at their plants.

There is a true need for the students trained in the Advanced Manufacturing Center, Lorch said. The state’s technical high schools don’t have the teachers or space for machines needed under their roofs, redesigned under a decade-old plan to shift the state to a banking-based economy that would de-emphasize manufacturing.

Since that plan was adopted, times changed and manufacturing is now an area that could experience growth. The centers at community colleges were planned after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy visited tech schools in 2011, and were funded by the jobs bill.

In a few short months in 2012, the Advanced Manufacturing Center was created.

Gugger was hired four days before the first classes started.

“I didn’t have much say in development,” Gugger said.

“We had to hit the ground running,” LaPorta said.

Those interested in the Advanced Manufacturing Center at Housatonic Community College may attend open houses every Thursday in May at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. in Beacon 287 at the school on Lafayette Boulevard in Bridgeport. Information on the open houses is available from Gugger at 203-332-5963 or from Bill Griffin at 203-332-5056.

Fall 2013 classes begin Aug. 28. Information may be found at housatonic.edu.

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