As manufacturing begins to rebound, a new generation of workers steps up

  • 14 min to read

The noise inside the advanced-manufacturing technology center holds steady in the early afternoon at Housatonic Community College on a recent weekday, a medium hum. With a few milling machines, lathes and an assortment of other equipment running, I might have expected a din too loud to talk comfortably. Instead, normal voices work fine in the well-lit room.

A half-dozen students in the manufacturing program in Bridgeport talk about their chosen field — an industry that holds thousands of unfilled job openings in Connecticut these days, with a pipeline of incoming machinists way too thin to meet demand. “I think a lot of people look at manufacturing as being a sweatshop, being dirty, dangerous, difficult,” Dino Sollenne explains. “A lot of the younger generation, at least kids my age, that’s what they think when thinking of working in the manufacturing field, working in a factory.”

IMG_2619.jpg

Housatonic Community College, which Kyle Ly attends, along with the state's other community colleges, produce about 600 graduates per year who can enter the state’s manufacturing workforce. Among other sources of workers, it’s a total that falls far short of state companies’ needs.

Sollenne graduated from Stratford High School in 2012 and has worked in the electrical industry, currently installing and maintaining generators as he takes a new path in the Housatonic program. “When I bring up what I’m doing, going to school for, a lot of people give me that look, like ‘Oh, isn’t that a sweatshop? Don’t they slave you to death?’ But it’s not like it was back in the day,” he says. “It’s a totally different ballgame these days. We need to spread the word that manufacturing is not what it was 20, 30 years ago.”

Sollenne describes himself as a formerly “troubled kid” who didn’t pay much heed to his father’s stories about working in a Stratford supplier to Sikorsky, making temperature gauges for helicopters on a factory floor. But now the bespectacled young man with a quick smile and sharp analysis is driven by a cause, a clear purpose.

For the best Connecticut Magazine content, plus the week's most compelling news and entertainment picks, delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Working behind a desk? “That’s not for me, never was me, I don’t think it will ever be me. But hey, I’m not knocking anybody who does that, I just believe this is what I’m meant to do. Something hands-on, something hard, something where I have to use my mind constantly, I’m on my feet, I’m working my hands, I’m getting dirty. And I’m making things. I think that’s been lost over the years.”

Getting dirty, that is, only to a point. Not like an old, oily factory, as everyone in the field takes pains to point out. 

As the 25-year-old suggests, it seems the whole manufacturing industry has had to adopt an evangelical tone in the hopes of attracting people into factories and machine shops — even in Connecticut, where metal-cutting and forging, especially for armaments, defined the state for much of the last 200 years. It’s an effort against the tide in some ways, as students who might have gone into machining without a second thought in another era, following fathers and uncles, now steer toward college or into vocational programs for, say, health or infotech careers. 

But the manufacturing pay is good and can be great, with overtime. And even though companies have downsized, exited Connecticut or become more efficient, the defense and aerospace industries as a whole, famously cyclical in the past, have not seen a big downturn in the last 15 years. Connecticut’s giant defense plants — Sikorsky in Stratford, Electric Boat submarines in Groton and Pratt & Whitney jet engines in East Hartford and Middletown — absorb billions of dollars in annual federal spending, keeping perhaps 800 Connecticut suppliers in business. 

Now they need many more Dino Sollennes than the state has produced in recent years. 

An ex-prisoner, an aspiring engineer

So, who are these mostly young, mostly male, would-be machinists in a scattered collection of programs across the state, joining the new generation of advanced manufacturing? 

I spoke with many of them, including 33-year-old Dustin Smith. He is five months out of prison and was homeless just a week before his graduation in December from an intensive, 9-week machining program for ex-offenders at Manchester Community College. “I was just incarcerated and now I’m drilling holes,” says Smith, who described a harrowing path through his training. “I didn’t know how to do any of this stuff a couple of months ago. None of us did.” 

Image.jpg

Jacquan Hunt, left, and Dustin Smith a Manchester Community College

I talked with 16-year-old Gretchen Seibt, a junior at Sheehan High School in Wallingford, aiming for a career in aerospace engineering, who figures it makes sense to learn factory machining first. She’s the only girl in her advanced manufacturing class. “I wasn’t expecting to see 21 guys and one girl,” she says. “But in the real world it’s like that.”

She adds, “That doesn’t mean we’re outskilled.” As for herself, “If you understand the parameters of the machines, it smooths the process. … I would like to get some hands-on experience. I was thinking of getting an internship at a local manufacturer.”

I heard Justin Hart, who graduated from West Haven High School in the teeth of the Great Recession and held jobs such as cable installer, describe how he recently found machining. It’s a return, of sorts, to his cherished teen activities of blacksmithing, 3-D modeling and generally making stuff. “I took a step back and decided I wanted to do something that more aligns with my hobbies,” Hart says.

Listening to these fledgling manufacturing workers, some who will stay with it fleetingly, others for a career, and talking with their program directors and instructors, it’s clear the pipeline is more diverse in backgrounds, and more varied in what drew them in, than many of us have imagined based on the old stereotypes. 

Their common traits in an age when computer programming matters as much as manual dexterity are a drive to make things with their hands; an aptitude for math and ability to pass a test to prove it; a sense of mechanical logic; and a desire for teamwork, as the days of isolated, repetitive functions are gone in Connecticut’s advanced-manufacturing culture. Combine those traits with training and access to machines, and the magic that ignited in the Connecticut valley factories of the Industrial Revolution sparks again in the lives of these students.

“What people don’t realize simply is just how things are made, like the whole process,” says Devin Mastrio, who graduated last year from Seymour High School and went right into the Housatonic program. Mastrio’s motivation: computer-aided design. “You’ll design the part and then you program tool paths,” he says. He talked about his high school class that designed and built a go-kart from scratch, which reached 30 mph. 

“We’re in Disneyland right now. You can make anything you want. To me, it’s just amazing working on these machines.”

A too-small army

They share a bond as soldiers in the too-small army that’s fighting to save manufacturing in a state built on machine work, a state that desperately needs a reliable engine of job growth. Between January 1990 and June 2016, the manufacturing workforce — all jobs, not just hourly production — fell from 305,000 to 156,000.

In the last three years, the number has climbed to 162,100. That’s not quite as fast a rise as the nation has seen in manufacturing. But wages have jumped faster in Connecticut than the nation — as defense contractors and suppliers search for workers to replace retiring machinists and feed the expansion, especially at Electric Boat. 

At stake is the stability of an industry that faces high costs in Connecticut even without the headache of scarce workers. Companies are generally profitable but say they need the state, the federal government and individual school systems to step up training. 

The numbers don’t add up. All told, the collection of machining programs in Connecticut, including the community colleges, the high schools, the workforce investment boards and Goodwin University, a private, nonprofit institution in East Hartford with a robust program, churns out perhaps 1,400 people a year. That’s just a fraction of what the companies say they need, and will need, as baby boomer machinists retire.

Part of the answer is attracting young women. “The old news on manufacturing, that it’s dirty, dark and dangerous, is not appealing to women. So we’re constantly reminding women that it’s changed,” says Felisha Guirand-Fleurimond, recruitment and retention coordinator at the Housatonic manufacturing program. “It’s just preconceived notions that people have.”

Housatonic holds manufacturing boot camps, 27 hours over three weeks, in winter and spring, Guirand-Fleurimond says. The school is planning at least one all-female boot camp in 2020. “This will be the first time we’re running it strictly for women.”

Housatonic is one of four community colleges with a full advanced manufacturing program — the largest, by far, is Asnuntuck in Enfield. Another four of the community colleges, including Manchester, have smaller manufacturing programs. Housatonic also has a “College Connections” program, drawing students from area high schools for a 2-hour daily class that meets for two years and leads to a semester of credit toward the college training. 

Building all this isn’t cheap or easy. Housatonic, despite intentions, will graduate about 33 people this year, a dropoff from 2019, when 59 out of 66 emerged successfully. The reason: The program had started an afternoon-to-night class, but couldn’t keep it going after a turnover of leadership, amid difficulty hiring instructors. They hope to relaunch it, Guirand-Fleurimond says.

As the schools and colleges work to expand, the state is trying to spread a highly innovative, nationally recognized retraining program that started a few years ago in southeastern Connecticut, known loosely as the manufacturing pipeline — in which employers, especially Electric Boat, help design the curriculum.

“There are a lot of moving parts to a much broader strategic plan,” says industry veteran Rich DuPont, a manufacturing consultant and director of community and campus relations for the advanced manufacturing technology center at Housatonic. “Can we sustain it? That’s the big scare.”

‘They are hiring’

As one college class and one high school class wrap up at Housatonic in December, Brendan Brown, one of the College Connections instructors who teaches at a well-developed Derby High School manufacturing program, calls out: “Class trip tomorrow to Moore Tool. Make sure you’re on time! They are hiring, guys.”

For some students, the trip to Moore Tool Co. in Bridgeport is just a chance for an up-close view of an aerospace subcontractor and one of the state’s last remaining machine makers. Others are serious enough to hope for a job or internship at Moore, which has 60 employees in Bridgeport and hires at least one or two Housatonic graduates a year. 

Chris Marselius, vice president of sales at Moore, says new hires are trained by “guys that are working with them all day long.” One Housatonic graduate from two years ago, he says, “has been running the Ferrari of machine tools.”

“They’re productive Day One,” says Marselius, whose brother is the general manager and chairman, but he adds, “there’s only so much you can do in an institutional setting.”

That young machinist is Rob Langton, a 27-year-old Fairfield resident who runs an ultra-precision lathe made by Moore, making parts for that very same line of machines. The complex, brass-colored parts he shows me are breathtakingly complex, nothing short of industrial art that could sit in the design section of the Museum of Modern Art. “I like being his corner of the shop to the visiting students. “I’ll still be learning my whole career.”

He worked for a time in auto detailing and found the work lower paying, more physically punishing and less rewarding. One concern: Too much specialization in the machining industry, in which workers are pigeonholed to one machine and losing old skills. “Scobie always said, if you don’t use it, you lose it,” he says, referring to George Scobie, who teaches at Housatonic alongside his son, Adam.

The Scobies also operate a machine shop in Milford together. And there’s a mother-daughter team, Dorsia and Chanel Franklin, of Bridgeport, who graduated together from the Housatonic program last year. Dorsia, 46, now works as an inspector at a manufacturer in Newtown and also still works as a patient-care technician at Bridgeport Hospital. She had originally thought of studying to become a nurse but manufacturing drew her in — and she brought her daughter with her. 

In general, though, people in the business don’t tend to encourage their children to go into hourly machining work the way past generations did. 

‘They get hooked’

Back at Housatonic, some of the manually operated drills and milling machines bear the “Bridgeport” name, and some of the older gunmetal-gray Bridgeports were made by workers in the state’s largest city, where Housatonic is located. That’s a reminder of the bygone era.

A few of the Housatonic students have followed family members into the trade, like Dino Sollenne is doing. It rarely happens in the straight line Connecticut saw in past generations and rarely with the sort of basement-and-garage training that led them directly to machine shops as soon as they could drive.

Devin Mastrio, the Housatonic student from Seymour, says he has family members in manufacturing. “A couple of them can’t talk about what they do because they work on presidential helicopters and stuff like that,” he says. An uncle is a tool-and-die maker, the quarterback position of the profession. “He actually did the same thing when he was my age, he went to a community college.”

Some have come into it with no prior manufacturing connections. “I loved using my hands for everything and I’ve been mechanically inclined,” says David Daria, a 2018 Newtown High School graduate, “and I work on cars and take things apart and put them back together, that’s cool, and I really thought about the next level where you make the parts and then you can assemble them and do all that.”

Many of the students still in high school remain undecided about committing to a career choice, even though they’re in the manufacturing program. 

Sebastian Bravo, born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in his family’s homeland of Colombia and in New York and Connecticut, will graduate from Bassick High School in Bridgeport this spring — with an eye toward graphic design and gaming. He may enroll at Sacred Heart University or Albertus Magnus College, he says. Or he could jump into the machining program at Housatonic. 

His fellow Bassick seniors, Bryan Vega and Wayne Morrison, are also both undecided on whether to stay with advanced manufacturing. “Maybe I will, but maybe I’ll focus on psychology,” says Vega, who describes machining as “satisfying sometimes.”

Their classmates, Kevin Fabila, at Kolbe Cathedral High School in Bridgeport, and Antonio Pensanti, at Stratford High, say they’re certain of their manufacturing paths and want to enroll at Housatonic full-time. Fabila has no family members in the business, while Pensanti’s grandfather retired from Sikorsky. “He likes to talk to me about it,” Pensanti says. 

Like many of the high school students, he was tapped for advance manufacturing by a counselor or adviser because, he says, “We were on the top in our engineering classes.”

Rich DuPont, the consultant and outreach director, isn’t worried about students who seem less committed. 

“A lot of guys start out thinking they’re not going to go into manufacturing, and they stay,” DuPont says. “When they start to feel good about their ability to learn and create in that environment, they get hooked.”

A breakthrough moment

The eyes of Dustin Smith, the ex-prisoner, light up and he stands up straight at his Bridgeport machine at Manchester Community College on a morning back in December. “That’s my first hole, you’re here to witness it,” Smith exclaims after an instructor, Anamuel Amvia, guides him on the final exam, making an aluminum block to exact specifications. “So far, so good,” Amvia says. 

Smith, a large man with a beard and dreadlocks, wearing a red knit cap on the day we met, had heard about advanced manufacturing as a path to redemption while he was at the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in Somers doing a 2-year sentence for intent to sell narcotics and domestic violence, he says. “I’ve been locked up at least 60 percent of my life,” he says, between prison, group homes and juvenile residential programs. 

He never attended high school, he tells me. He earned his GED behind bars and took the English and math requirements and did well. Ironically, he couldn’t enroll in the Cybulski training run by Asnuntuck because he had too little time left to serve. Once out, he landed a job as a delivery driver for a furniture retailer and also signed up for the Manchester Community College program, known as Best Chance, now in its third year. 

He passed the qualifying tests and started. But Smith, from Hartford, had no home in his hometown and the driving job was too many hours for too little pay for him to do both. He lived in a shelter, but with no space to study, and restrictive hours, and no money for food and transportation, he couldn’t make it all work. “This opportunity came up and I made a sacrifice to improve my future,” he says of the manufacturing program. “Then that sacrifice got way too tough. It got way too tough.”

He took a job in the holiday season as a driver for Amazon and FedEx. In mid-December, he says, “Right now my situation has just declined to an all-time low. I got my first paycheck … I was able to pay for a hotel room but it’s going to take a few paychecks,” he says, to move into an apartment.

Amvia, a machinist at Pratt & Whitney who teaches part-time at Manchester, guides him through a more exacting hole. “You’re in low gear, you’re going to go in slowly and keep an eye on it.”

756B479E-17E1-4614-87DC-AFC1E65D011E.jpg

Dustin Smith operates a drill under the instruction of Anamuel Amvia, a machinist at Pratt & Whitney and part-time teacher at Manchester Community College.

“My feed ratio should be slow as well.”

“Yes.”

“And I have the bottom in my sights.”

“In the real world, you’re going to use oil.”

“Easy does it. I’m just guiding it,” Smith says, moving like a doctor administering an injection. 

“Now you lift it up. Look inside that hole right now, you’ll see it precisely as smooth as a baby’s butt,” Amvia says. 

Amvia, 29, is himself a young manufacturing worker with towering success. Born in Bangladesh, he lived in Manchester with his older brothers from a young age. His parents owned and operated a grocery store in New York City, he says. Early in high school, Cheney Tech, he decided on manufacturing after a Pratt presentation at the school. He lined up a nonunion job at Otis Elevator in Bloomfield while still in high school.

Unable to get in at Pratt during the recession, he earned an associate’s degree in business management at Manchester Community College, then a bachelor’s at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford. As a machining instructor at Manchester, he helped students land high-paying jobs at Pratt, and said to himself, “Hey, why don’t I do it myself?”

Today, Amvia says he earns as much as $175,000 a year — the math adds up based on a very large number of hours. He has two houses, a wife and two children. “This trade is what made me what I am,” he says. He clearly could rise in management but says that’s just a back-up because he won’t take the pay cut.

Together, Amvia and Smith measure the new hole. “You did your job right,” Amvia says. 

“I love this [stuff],” Smith says. “It’s amazing, I swear.”

Amid his personal turmoil, Smith graduated from the program in December and had high hopes for an apprenticeship at a company in Newington. “I have friends that could be in this program with me right now but it’s about their willpower and their motivation,” he says during a class earlier in December.

His classmate, Jacquan Hunt, also from Hartford, also an ex-offender, left a job as a construction laborer for the program. “I love it. I’m passing with flying colors,” he says. “There’s a lot of companies that still allow people with a criminal background to apply … You don’t want to be 30 years old and still sitting on the couch at home.”

Alex Tournaud, adjunct professor and lead instructor of the Best Chance program, shows me the larger, more sophisticated teaching lab with seven computer-driven machines and, in another room, 19 computer-control simulators connected to high-speed desktop units. The Best Chance graduates can enroll in the full course and learn the higher skills, or find companies where they’ll receive on-the-job training. 

“We are well aware of the obstacles they face,” says Tournaud, a former toolmaker at United Technologies Research Center, who believes Best Chance could expand to other community college campuses. 

He’s keenly aware of the slog to maintain a workforce. His son went through an advanced manufacturing program at Manchester and now makes $60,000, still in his early 20s. His daughter just graduated from UConn and wants to become a veterinarian — which will saddle her with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. “She’ll catch him eventually but he’ll make a lot of money before she does,” he says. 

For all of these young people starting out, or redefining their lives, advanced manufacturing is more than a path to make money — it’s a calling they either embrace or they don’t, perhaps as part of a broader path. 

Devin Mastrio, the Housatonic machining student from Seymour, for example, envisions earning an engineering degree slowly, while working at a manufacturer. He’s satisfied knowing exactly what he wants, unlike his friends who went directly to college. 

“They’re always second-guessing themselves, but me, I know for a fact this is what I want to do,” Mastrio says.

This article appeared in the February 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.