Connecticut manufacturers expand as aviation recovers from COVID-19 and Pentagon spending soars

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Aviation is recovering from the pandemic and Pentagon spending is rising to counter military threats in Europe and the Pacific, fueling job growth and expansion for several Connecticut manufacturers.

Manufacturers are preparing to capitalize on expectations that air travel will return to pre-COVID-19 levels next year and billions of dollars flowing into Connecticut in record military spending through Congress.

“It’s definitely going in the right direction,” said Mark Auletta, chief operating officer at Bauer Inc., a Bristol manufacturer of aircraft component test equipment.

The 106-year-old manufacturer is building a 30,000 square meter extension, more than doubling its production area. Bauer has rented premises for manufacturing, sheet metal processing and welding work off-site. When the new building is completed in September, manufacturing will take place under one roof, Auletta said. Bauer will move an extended machine hall into the new building.

In addition, Bauer has ordered $1 million in equipment, including a press brake and laser cutting.

And it will hire 20 to 30 people over the next few months, adding to its workforce of 100, including 40 engineers, Auletta said.

Connecticut Spring and Stamping (CSS), a Farmington-based manufacturer of springs and machined components, broke ground in April on a 48,000-square-foot addition, an expansion by nearly a third to accommodate a new power press.

CSS president Steve Dicke said the medical and defense business has been solid, but the aerospace and automotive work is “slowly coming back.”

“They haven’t really returned to the level they used to be,” he said.

Polamer Precision, a New Britain aerospace manufacturer, has completed the purchase of a 22.5 acre site that will allow it to increase its square footage from its current 152,000 square feet to more than 600,000.

Chris Galik, president, chief executive officer and owner, said the $1 million purchase of the city-owned property in New Britain is the first step toward expansion over the next few years.

Polamer Precision currently has 175 employees and plans to potentially employ 600,000 square feet with more than 500 employees, he said. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the manufacturer relied heavily on commercial aviation, he said. The industry has been hit hard during the pandemic when air travel restrictions were imposed, forcing airlines to ground their fleets.

Polamer Precision is now trying to diversify its portfolio to include semiconductor manufacturing equipment. The expansion will also help the company build its military aviation business, Galik said.

And Barnes Aerospace, part of Barnes Group, is doubling its East Granby maintenance, repair and overhaul facility from 30,000 to 68,000 square feet. The expansion will significantly increase Barnes’ capacity to support new engine programs and product lines and reduce lead times, the company said.

Construction work related to the production expansion is overshadowed by supply chain bottlenecks and the highest rate of inflation in more than 40 years. This increases construction costs and delays completion dates.

“What used to be a two-month lead time is now 10 months,” Auletta said.

Dicke said he is not deterred by supply chain issues and inflation, which are driving up costs.

“It won’t stop us from continuing,” he said.

Nationally, manufacturing has been “fairly resilient” over the past year despite supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, inflation, COVID-19 and Russia’s war on Ukraine, which has rattled energy markets and increased global uncertainty, the National Association of Manufacturers said in their 2022 outlook.

According to the report, U.S. manufacturing output has recovered from omicron and supply chain issues and is up 4.6% since the pandemic began. Factory orders, manufacturing construction and consumer spending have also risen over the past year, “with pent-up demand and solid spending helping to support growth,” the forecast reads.

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In Connecticut, manufacturers have discontinued all but one of every month since September 2021. With 159,800 jobs as of January 2020, Connecticut manufacturers accounted for about 99% of the sector’s employment just before the pandemic shut down much of the economy.

Manufacturers remained open but scaled back early in the pandemic to stem the spread of the virus, shedding 11,100 jobs in April 2020, down 7% in just one month.

The problem now is finding workers. Greg Hayes, chief executive officer of Raytheon Technologies Corp., parent company of jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, recently told industry analysts that employers are “a little surprised at how much pressure there is in the supply chain.”

“And I would tell you, it all comes down to labor availability,” he said.

During the downturn immediately after the pandemic began in 2020, aerospace and defense manufacturers laid off workers. Typically 75 to 80% of workers return, but now it’s about 25% as workers find other jobs, Hayes said.

Paul Lavoie, the state’s chief manufacturing officer, said labor issues are “the single biggest obstacle preventing Connecticut’s manufacturing expansion.”

Members of Aerospace Components Manufacturers, a network of Connecticut and southwest Massachusetts aerospace companies, have 800 vacancies, he said.

Childcare and transportation are among the biggest barriers to work, Lavoie said. The state budget passed in June earmarks $100 million for affordable childcare, the result of a coalition of companies and workers working to fund childcare.

Transportation issues would also need to be resolved if production is to expand, he said. Manufacturing has moved to the suburbs, making it unattainable for young city dwellers, Lavoie said. “Children in cities would like jobs in manufacturing but can’t go to the suburbs,” he said.

In an election year, job growth has become a political issue. Governor Ned Lamont, who is seeking a second term, recently tweeted that manufacturing “continues to perform strongly,” with 3,400 jobs added since December.

Republican Legislative leaders view job growth differently than the Democratic governor. “I think this governor made it all his own,” said Republican House Speaker Vincent Candelora. “I’m not surprised he’s embracing something that his position has absolutely nothing to do with.”

Senator Kevin Kelly, the Republican leader in the Senate, said Lamont failed to mention that Connecticut lost 1,800 construction jobs in May-June. “And that’s a more important statistic because it’s more related to what’s going on in Connecticut, inflation and what’s going on in the economy,” he said.

Additionally, since March 2008, just before the Great Recession, Connecticut had still lost nearly 70,000 jobs, Kelly said.

Dicke, President of CSS, said Connecticut manufacturing is reliable, albeit volatile at times.

“There are always ups and downs in business, but it’s grown steadily over the past 25 years,” he said.

Stephen Singer can be reached at [email protected]

©2022 Hartford Courant. Visit courtant.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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