Stability, work culture keeping manufacturing workforce steady

CONNECTICUT USA - (MARCH 2021) - Through a pandemic that left thousands without jobs, Alyssa Schmidt was grateful for a position as an assistant production manager for InCord in Colchester.

“I’m glad that I can still work 40 hours a week,” she said.Like many manufacturing businesses, InCord switched from its normal production of safety netting to medical gowns and other supplies when COVID hit - a move that kept workers employed and happy.

“It was pretty fulfilling knowing we could help out the community,” Schmidt said.

Manufacturing jobs are performing better than other sections of the economy in Connecticut, including government, education, and leisure and hospitality. Industry leaders believe that beyond the need for manufacturers, the businesses were also able to adapt to the circumstances COVID created. Workers in the field followed.

Jared Aguilar, an InCord employee in general production, said it was good that he could keep working, but he said getting through the pandemic has been a team effort because some of InCord’s traditional clients had to shut down.

“It’s vital in this rough time for any company for us to come together and see what we can do to keep the company moving forward,” Aguilar said.

Manufacturing workers: Thankful and stable

Isabelle McKeon, a junior quality assurance engineer for Collins & Jewell in Bozrah, had known from early on that her work was considered essential. On March 20, 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense declared the defense industry and subcontractors, which Collins & Jewell is the latter, to be essential.

“That was something I didn’t have to worry about, which I am thankful for,” McKeon said.

McKeon added that the stability from manufacturing provides people a reason to join the industry.

“You can have a steady career, a house, and a family, and not have to worry about things,” McKeon said.

Bobby Young, a new product development extrusion engineer for Putnam Plastics, said he’s grateful to still be working, but there were still concerns about preventing COVID.

“We had to figure out social distancing, wearing masks,” Young said.

Young said some of the older workers retired due to the pandemic, which meant younger employees had to fill those roles and make up for the experience gap.

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“They are stepping up, but as the company grows, it makes it much more challenging,” Young said.

Brad Fontenault said as a single earner in his household, it was important to him to still be working. But the Putnam Plastics employee came to work one day and the temperature scanner by the entrance of the building caught him with a high temperature. He had to leave. It turned out he had COVID and was out for two weeks.

“They’ve been supportive of being cautious,” Fontenault, a new product development engineering supervisor, said.

How they started

Schmidt took her first job at InCord as a temp job. She’s still there - 12 years later.

“I loved it so much I haven’t left,” Schmidt said.

McKeon hadn’t originally wanted to work in manufacturing - she was in the massage therapy business. But McKeon came to Collins & Jewell after her time in the Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative, a program administered by local manufacturing companies to train people in seven-to-10 week-long courses. 

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McKeon also grew up around manufacturing. Her mom worked at Electric Boat.

“I’d grow up with her, and she’d always be talking about engineering and design drawings, and it always seemed very interesting,” McKeon said.

Why they stayed 

McKeon's job at Collins & Jewell has good pay and benefits, especially compared to her time in the massage therapy business.

“It’s very different than what people would experience before they have a career-type job,” McKeon said.

While Schmidt said that having good benefits and a 401K is one reason to stay at In-Cord, she felt the company culture was another good reason, with upper management calling employees by their first names, and having unique and fun work, as “you just learn new things every day.”

“A happy employee is a happy workplace,” Schmidt said. “If the culture was different here, people would be miserable and they wouldn’t want to put in their 100% effort.”

Workplace culture is also important to Fontenault.

Even though the company has a gym, and people know each other on a first-name basis, family is what really counts. The company was founded by the Dandeneau family in 1984, and Ryan Dandeneau, the founder’s son, is still the president.

Families with two generations are employed at the company, including Fontenault's father, who at 70 plans on retiring soon.

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“Because there’s so much family, it’s almost as if we’re one big family,” Fontenault said.

Young also works with his father. While his dad is the reason why Young works at Putnam Plastics, Young outranks his dad, giving him orders on what to make.

“It’s been an ongoing joke,” Young said. “I tell him I keep him employed.”

McKeon said Collins & Jewell also has a close-knit environment.

“You have the ability to interact with other people, and collaborate, and also go down your own path,” McKeon said.

What’s Next for Connecticut workers?

Both Fontenault and Young are looking forward to what happens with Putnam Plastic’s expansion. Starting in June 2020, the company began expanding its main facility by 57,000 square feet. It’s expected to be finished in May.

“There’s room to grow here,” Fontenault said.

Schmidt wants to be able to stay with InCord for the long haul.

“We used to just have one building and now we have four,” Schmidt said. “I hope to be here when it keeps expanding.”

Aguilar said his work at InCord has given him opportunities. Aguilar is a college student, and he wants to see if his hard work and studies eventually gets him a job as a drafter or another higher-ranked position. He also believes others can grow careers in manufacturing.

“As long as you want to advance, the opportunity is always there,” Aguilar said.