Is manufacturing the Valley’s past ... and future?

Shelton and the rest of the Valley was once a hub for factories producing items that were shipped around the world.

The factories provided well-paying jobs that supported families and boosted the local economy.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, many of those factories closed and moved elsewhere, leaving behind vacant, old industrial buildings.

But a new kind of manufacturing now is returning to the area, with the work often taking place in modern manufacturing facilities rather than sprawling brick buildings.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy came to Shelton to discuss how to build on the state’s manufacturing base. He led a roundtable discussion on developing a plan for a federal manufacturing policy.

“What we’ve been about, and still are about, are the things we make,” he said.

Murphy's plan is still a working document

Murphy described his “Compact for Connecticut’s Manufacturers” as a working document that still is evolving, based on feedback.

He’s meeting with a variety of groups to finalize the plan, from labor and environmental organizations to business owners.

The Greater Valley Chamber of Commerce helped organize the event at the OEM Controls Inc. facility, off Long Hill Cross Road. About 50 representatives of local manufacturing firms were in attendance.

OEM Controls designs and makes electro-hydraulic controllers and control systems used in construction, utility work and other fields. The company employs about 215 people in Shelton.

Bright future?

Murphy took questions from the audience, many of which focused on government regulation, the need for better training and education, and the high cost of doing business in Connecticut.

He said having a strong manufacturing presence is important to the state’s future, noting the role such high-paying jobs have played in Connecticut’s economic past.

Murphy said he understands the importance of manufacturing because his great-grandfather left Poland to come to Connecticut due to the good factory jobs here.

“I’m a product of that dream,” said the state’s junior senator, a Democrat first elected in 2012.

Most of today’s manufacturing jobs require high-level skills and technological competence, he said, and aren’t located in “old, rotted-out buildings” but in modern corporate parks.

America now more competitive

Murphy said global changes now taking place are making the United States more competitive for manufacturing, with labor costs increasing in developing countries and America producing more of its own energy.

“We can ride this wave of re-industrialization that is happening,” he said.

Having a formal policy would focus attention on the steps needed to make that happen. “Our manufacturing policy really is disjointed now,” Murphy said.

Too much government regulation?

Glen Golden of Electri-Cable Assemblies in Shelton said some regulations have gotten out of control, such as one requiring public companies to report whether the origin of certain minerals used in manufacturing can be connected to supporting war efforts in the Republic of Congo.

This reporting effort costs his company time because it must trace back its supply chain. “It’s these type of things that are frustrating for small manufacturers,” Golden said.

Other attendees spoke about problems with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration on workplace safety, prompting Murphy to say that something on OSHA should be added to the draft plan.

“The regulatory environment has gotten a little out of control, especially for the little guys,” Murphy said of small business.

Fixing the problems

Murphy said it’s important for him to hear these concerns. “I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty trying to fix these things,” he said.

There also were questions about whether Murphy’s plan would simply create more government spending and bureaucracy.

For instance, the plan backs raising the federal gas tax to upgrade infrastructure. Murphy defended the idea, saying it would help businesses.

Skilled workers shortage

Murphy and some of the businesspeople said young people today need to understand that manufacturing can be a lucrative career.

Keith Brenton, president of Autoswage in Shelton, said recent high school graduates working as toolmakers can make more than four-year college graduates, yet it’s hard to find a qualified toolmaker under age 50.

Jerry Clupper, New Haven Manufacturers Association executive director, said the region’s voc-ed high schools and community colleges are being upgraded to teach the skills needed for advanced manufacturing jobs.

Many kinds of manufacturers

Brenton said too much emphasis sometimes is put on the state’s aerospace industry that makes engines, downplaying other kinds of manufacturing.

“Someone has to make nuts and bolts and screws,” said Brenton, noting his company makes a simpler kind of product that is exported to China. “We can be competitive with China,” he said.