Wallingford business leaders, politicians, advocates discuss workforce challenges [Record-Journal]

April 10, 2022

From the Record-Journal:


Kevin O’Rourke, owner of Fish Window Cleaning, knows some employees don’t envision themselves working at his business forever. But these days, O’Rourke says, it can be a struggle even getting people to show up.


“I had in the past two weeks four people that I hired, none of them are working for me now,” he said.


O’Rourke was one of 30 business owners, politicians and community advocates who shared a range of perspectives on the challenges companies continue to face attracting and retaining workers during a roundtable event at the HUBCAP on Center Street on Friday.


A nonprofit “hybrid-business incubator,” HUBCAP is a collaboration between local schools and the business community designed to increase college and career readiness while expanding downtown Wallingford business.


“There seems to be a lack of communication and that’s why we’re going to have the conversation today,” said state Sen. Paul Cicarella, R-North Haven, who co-hosted the event. “… But there are a lot of workforce development ideas out there.”


When discussing ways to improve the workforce, Maria Campos Harlow, executive director of the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford, stressed the idea of paying attention to “the boots on the ground.”


“I think that it is significantly important that we understand the value that it is to work with local nonprofits and local organizations that have a direct relationships with the individuals,” Campos Harlow said. “They can really educate them, inspire them, guide them to enroll in all of these amazing training programs that are available everywhere.”


An issue many of the businesses and organizations that attended the discussion talked about was the lack of people showing up for either training or to work.


Vincent Cervoni, chairman of the Wallingford Town Council, said it’s important to address the issue of people not showing up for work or hiring interviews by coming up with ways to make people proud of their work.


“If we can come up with a way to encourage people to take pride in being self-sustaining, I think we can solve a lot of the problems that we are talking about,” said Cervoni, a Republican.


Even though people were encouraged to stay home the past two years due to the pandemic, state Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, who did not attend, pointed to the ongoing challenges workers face due to a lack of child care.


“If you’re lower income, it’s even harder to get (child care),” Mushinsky said.


Future of workforce


Along with discussing the current labor climate, the participating business and organization leaders and government officials touched upon the future of the workforce and shifting views on the role of college.


“I’m not discrediting college, but unfortunately a four-year degree is just like a diploma now and I just think that we need to educate our children on the other great opportunities that are out there and the community needs it, the businesses, they need help,” Cicarella said. “More importantly, there are jobs or businesses that are going under because no one is interested in moving down that path because they just don’t know about it.”


Mushinsky agreed that there are some good jobs out there that do not require a college degree, so within the school district, Tony Loomis, wellness coordinator for Wallingford Public Schools, said once students reach the high school level, they should know what their passions are so they need to attain the skills to be able to get the future job they want.


“College, for many, is an important step toward that career and you have to build those skills in high school to prepare you to get accepted to a college for that,” Loomis said. “But, there’s a very good chance college is not going to be a step that you need.”


When it comes to getting students to want to attend workforce development programs, Kim McLaughlin of the College and Career Center at Sheehan High School, said it’s important to understand the audience.


“When it comes to the high school students, we have been driving them from the time they’re young to find that thing that ignites passion, McLaughlin said, “to find something that they believe in, that they’re going to make a difference doing.”