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An economic boom is coming to Connecticut — but at what cost?

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New US Navy contracts require an expanded workforce in eastern Connecticut. Will the job openings hurt other labor markets?

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Erica Phillips to discuss her article, “In eastern CT, Electric Boat military contracts launch economic boom,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: So Erica, how is Electric Boat helping the economy in eastern Connecticut?

EP: Yeah, it's interesting. So Electric Boat is General Dynamics Electric Boat, a submarine manufacturer, and the lead designer of the US Navy's new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, as well as a contractor on attack submarines and other types of submarines. It's been doing this work in eastern Connecticut since the late 1800s.

So I think in 1899 they finished their first submarine for the Navy. So this isn't necessarily new. What's new about the current economic boom is a slew of new contract work for the Navy. And what the story is about is just sort of some of the ripple effects that that has on the economy. You know, you think a big new contract, lots of new jobs, this is awesome. This is a great thing. We have a deep history of being the provider of these things to the US Navy. And certainly it is a positive economic development. But there are some ripple effects. And so that's what we dove into.

WSHU: Now, there's a kind of bust and boom in this industry, where there's a ramp up, a lot of submarines are produced, and then for several years, it goes down. And jobs are shed.

EP: Yes, exactly. So after the Cold War, this region of eastern Connecticut kind of had a lot of capacity that was no longer necessary for the US Navy. So the fleet was kind of going strong, the Navy wasn't procuring a ton of new equipment. And that led to what the Navy itself has called kind of this boom and bust cycle in a lot of the regions that it taps when it needs new equipment. And so the Navy is sort of aware, and they've done reports on this, that when the time comes that they do need new equipment, it can be an issue because they go back to their original suppliers and the workforce has gone away.

The supply chain to those companies, so like the smaller companies that make parts or materials that go into, in this case, submarines, those companies may have closed down after the last boom. Submarine work kind of waned in the 90s, the Navy estimated that, and this might have been the military overall, over 20,000 companies went away in the military industrial base in this country. So this is a real boom and bust pattern.

Because Connecticut as a state is such a major supplier to the US military. You know, we have Sikorsky helicopters, we have Pratt and Whitney jet engines, and we have Electric Boat, which is kind of the big one dollar wise, these kinds of boom and bust trends can have a big impact on the economy here.

WSHU: So how are we handling it this time around? What's going on here?

EP: Yeah, so there's a really interesting program and people might know about this program or have heard about the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative, which has gotten national recognition. We've had members of presidential administrations visit the state to observe what's going on there because they're doing what's considered a pretty good job of really rapidly training up the workforce that's going to be needed in, not only at Electric Boat, but at its suppliers who are in the area. There are hundreds of companies in the region. And so they are recruiting adults, underemployed or unemployed adults, whether you have manufacturing experience or not, it doesn't matter. You do this intensive five to ten week training, depending on the skill you're getting. And the employers have guaranteed jobs lined up for people who have completed this program. So that's kind of unique about this particular program, is that the people entering into it know, if they show up every day and they do the work, they will essentially nine times out of ten, maybe even more frequently than that, have a job at the end of it.

So if you think, a lot of times kids go to college these days, or they go to community college, and they study a trade, they don't necessarily know if they're going to be able to find a job after that. So the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative is sort of this unique project kind of being modeled in other parts of the country, even in other parts of the state now, for that kind of ability to basically guarantee work on the back end. So it's an interesting, really interesting way that they're basically mobilizing the workforce that had essentially gone away, and they have to do it fast. You know, that program is still not big enough, they're continuing to grow it. But it was a really interesting case study of how quickly they're getting back up to speed there.

WSHU: And this is all at the community college level.

EP: Yeah, so the community colleges are participating in the program. So it's run by the Workforce Investment Board in the region. But the community colleges stepped up and said, we will host these intensive training sessions. And like I said, they're short term. So it's not like going to a semester of college, it's like you really are going to this specific program that happens to be in the Community College Facility. There's also a high school, a Tech High School Ella T. Grasso High School in Groton, who's hosting these classes, I believe in the evening for adult students. And they have the high school level manufacturing pipeline initiative now. So it's growing and expanding at a pretty impressive rate.

But again, the story gets into kind of some of the ripple effects even of that. So you have kind of this positive workforce development program, exemplary in many ways, but what does that mean for the workforce that is needed in other sectors right now? You know, we have a really tight labor market, a really competitive labor market for skilled individuals. So you have kind of one big economic engine here that's driving a lot of that toward one specific sector. What happens in other sectors? And, you know, that's something for maybe people a lot smarter than me to figure out the solutions to, but it is an interesting development.

WSHU: And you also say here, that it's about a decade until they reach the peak of the hiring as far as the submarine industry is concerned. So they've got quite a ways to go, to ramp up.

EP: Exactly.

WSHU: That means they must be casting their net further afield rather than just in eastern Connecticut.

EP: Right. So yeah, so the manufacturing pipeline initiative is expanding to other parts of the state. Now they're going to set up some of these programs I believe in in other counties in Connecticut. They're also not just seeking folks to kind of work on the manufacturing side. They're seeking designers, engineers, they need everything. Electric Boat is advertising during National Football League broadcasts. I don't know if anyone watches as many sports as I do. If you do, you've definitely seen these ads many times over. And I've seen ads on social media. Friends of mine, who knew I was working on this story who live far afield, you know, states and states away from here, were sending me like, hey, I saw this ad on Facebook for Electric Boat jobs. Crazy, right? You know, so they're really looking everywhere.

WSHU: So how are the local Chambers of Commerce dealing with it? We've had a situation in eastern Connecticut, we've been trying for years to try and stimulate the economy there. Do they feel that they've turned that corner?

EP: Oh, interesting. Yeah. I mean, I guess I can't speak to that specifically. But I talked to students in the program, I talked to people at some of these manufacturing companies. There's a manufacturing alliance of a bunch of small manufacturers in eastern Connecticut. I talked to folks from there. And yeah, I mean, this is huge. This is absolutely an extremely positive development that means so much for the guaranteed work, that’s gonna be for the next several decades.

WSHU: You say here someone was talking about job security, that this is guaranteed job security for years to come.

EP: Exactly. So there's definitely, in my reporting, definitely a theme of optimism around this economic development. And coming on the heels of pre-recession and post-Great Recession, just really kind of massive difficulty in that area. A lot of job loss, a lot of trouble getting back up to speed after the Great Recession. So there’s certainly a lot more optimism that I heard.

WSHU: In eastern Connecticut, can we say people are optimistic about their economic future?

EP: Some people I'm sure! No yeah, definitely. It definitely feels that way. And just you know, in the various conversations that I had, there’s a lot of a lot of positivity there.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a news fellow, working on the Long Story Short, Higher Ground, and other podcasts at WSHU.