Connecticut should create an ‘Office of Economic Diversity’

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Thanks at least in part to the efforts of Gov. Dannel Malloy, Connecticut is seeing a resurgence in manufacturing.  But gearing up for this build-up is only half the task.  We also need to make plans for when the latest defense boom goes bust.

The three biggest manufacturers in the state – Pratt & Whitney, Electric Boat and Sikorsky – all have substantial orders, stretching out more than a decade.  Thousands of manufacturing jobs will be created as a result.

Much of the boom in Connecticut manufacturing comes in the form of defense contracts, which are a federal initiative.  But those jobs could go anywhere.  The fact that the growth is happening here is due to sustained effort and smart policy choices by Gov. Malloy, DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith, and others on the Malloy team.

The tax incentives given these companies will foster local economic activity worth many times the cost of the incentives themselves.  Our newly revived support for manufacturing includes greatly expanded industrial training at community colleges, improved tech school programs, money for training current workers, a lucrative apprenticeship program, funds for purchasing critical equipment, and wage subsidies for hiring veterans.

A great deal of attention is being focused on young people, starting in middle school, to persuade them to pursue a career in manufacturing.  All are necessary steps for retaining and expanding our manufacturing sector.

While those tasks continue, we should begin active planning now for the inevitable – a downturn in defense spending in 10 -15 years.  The steps needed would help diversify our economy immediately, and allow us to avoid the worst consequences of a “one crop” economy when the one crop fails.

We have repeatedly lived through the often-precipitous drops in programs, based on political battles, federal deficits and technological advances.  If we entice 20-year-olds into the field now, we have to have ways to help sustain those jobs when that same worker is 40 years old, with a house and a family.  Guiding people, especially young people, into a career carries some obligation to not leave workers stranded at a clearly discernible future point.

In 2013, the state legislature established a “Committee on the Future of Connecticut” specifically to look at how to nurture sustainable manufacturing in our state.

The Commission acknowledged both the value of defense contracts to the economy of the state – as well as the volatility of that market.  The Commission urged the State to focus thought and resources now and in an ongoing effort to diversify Connecticut manufacturing.

The Commission especially urged support for green technology both because of the obvious global need for renewable energy, and because the needed technology will require the innovation, precision and manufacturing skills that make Connecticut an outstanding producer for the global market.

The State of Connecticut has wisely established a Manufacturing Innovation Fund (MIF), with $70 million to support this critical sector of our state economy.  That fund should take a small portion of its reserves — $250,000 annually is a modest but reasonable amount — to set up an Office of Economic Diversity.

The Office is Economic Diversity could be used as a data analysis and research coordinator, resource center and point of catalyst for encouraging start-ups of new tech companies and repositioning of current manufacturers towards commercial markets.  Resources available under the Manufacturing Innovation Fund could be brought into play as appropriate.  Other state initiatives to build our state’s technology innovators – like Connecticut Innovations (CI), and programs to deploy energy conservation & low carbon alternatives – like the CT Green Bank, could be utilized.

The key to focusing state assets on new and emerging commercial, civilian production is the Office of Economic Diversity, which would house the expertise to coordinate existing resources and recommend new steps as needed to grow civilian manufacturing.

By expanding the MIF Advisory Board to include economic conversion advocates and other community interests, the OED would have the proper guidance to pursue its mission.

In this manner, the state of Connecticut would fulfill its promise to those looking for a full career in manufacturing, rather than one that ends with the next decline in military orders.  Connecticut would rightfully take its place as a leader in sustaining U.S. manufacturing.  Gov. Malloy, who has helped the manufacturing community to a period of revitalized health, could ensure that his legacy extends far beyond the current boom, creating sustainable adaptation and continued employment, when traditionally we go bust.

John Harrity is President of the Connecticut State Council of Machinists.

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