Connecticut business leaders pressed Gov. Ned Lamont and his Republican rival Bob Stefanowski for ideas on improving the state’s workforce climate during a Friday forum that followed the release of a survey that found most businesses reporting labor shortages.
Lamont and Stefanowski separately participated in a question and answer forum with Chris DiPentima, the president and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association during the group’s televised economic summit held at the Hartford Marriott Downtown.
The conference coincided with the release of the lobby group’s annual business survey, which found the vast majority or 85% of polled businesses reporting difficulties hiring and retaining workers.
Speaking to Stefanowski, DiPentima called the number “staggering.”
“We’ve been saying at CBIA that the workforce crisis is the greatest threat to growth and recovery,” DiPentima said.
Asked how he would address workforce shortages, Stefanowski, a Madison Republican running a second campaign against Lamont, said he suspected the issue attracted more attention due to its novelty.
“It’s the first one that businesses mention but I think they’re used to regulation and they’re used to crazy taxes so they kind of take that for granted,” Stefanowski said. “They’re not used to having open roles that they can’t fill and that’s why I think it rises to the top because it’s a new problem.”
Stefanowski joked about two of his own children who chose to attend college in California. “Now I’ve got another one at UC Santa Barbara, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong with my kids,” he said. But he suggested that Connecticut should focus on opening more trade schools to meet labor demands.
“[College is] not what every kid needs,” Stefanowski said. “These kids coming out of trade schools have three, four job offers — electricians, people with construction skills. Why aren’t we investing more in our trade skills? They’re all at capacity, why aren’t we opening up five more?”
Meanwhile, Lamont told DiPentima he was unsurprised by the businesses reporting recruitment difficulties and believed the number represented an improvement over decades of stagnant job growth.
“Over the last 30 years we had no net increases in jobs in this state. We were flat as a pancake,” Lamont said. “Same in terms of population growth. Now we’re saying we have a different crisis. First time in my life, and I’m pretty old, that we have many more jobs than we have people ready for those jobs, skilled for those jobs, and able to apply for those jobs.”
Lamont said his administration had invested in workforce development and had tried to work with state businesses to identify what skill sets would be needed in the coming years. He said the state had also made recent investments to improve the availability of child care in an effort to facilitate more residents to return to the workforce.
“It’s beginning to work,” Lamont said. “It’s taken a while, no question about it.”
The CBIA survey, which around 618 businesses participated in to between July 6 and Aug. 8, found about 89% of those companies reporting that the cost of doing business in Connecticut was increasing.
Stefanowski seized on the statistic early in his Q&A period with DiPentima.
“Eighty-nine percent of the people in this room think it’s going to get more expensive to do business in Connecticut,” Stefanowski said. “Sometimes we look at these things and say, ‘oh yeah, that’s the way it is.’ That’s not the way it should be… If you had a CEO who was in for four years and produced those kinds of results would you give him or her another four years? Of course you wouldn’t.”
Lamont called the cost of living in Connecticut “our biggest headwind,” but said improving the availability of housing and reducing the costs of education and child care would help address the issue.
“Our labor costs are relatively high. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to compete with Mississippi on that front,” Lamont said. “I think we’re always going to have to be the best trained, most productive workforce in the world that can do the most sophisticated things… and that will pay accordingly.”
In general, the governor was optimistic about Connecticut’s future. “I kinda like where Connecticut is, I’ll be blunt,” he said. And DiPentima said his group’s survey found the state on firmer fiscal footing.
“Connecticut’s fiscal health has not been this strong in decades,” DiPentima said. “The question now is can we leverage this sound fiscal foundation and build a more competitive, more robust economy with opportunities for all residents. It’s about how we invest this fiscal surplus.”
On Wednesday, the Office of Policy and Management projected the state would end the fiscal year with a $2.3 billion surplus. Lamont told DiPentima that he had to fend off attempts from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to spend surplus funds rather than use them to pay down unfunded pension liabilities.
“I’m not letting those guard rails slip. Not one iota. I’ve been pushed from the left, pushed from the right,” Lamont said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Stefanowski, meanwhile, said the state’s budget reserves were large enough to spend more of the surplus than Lamont had agreed to.
“I don’t care who takes credit for it but we’ve got $6 billion of surplus. Why wouldn’t we use some of that money to stimulate the economy?” Stefanowski said. “So that’s what we’re going to do and it’s going to start bringing jobs and it’s going to start bringing sales.”
Despite offering criticisms of most of Lamont’s performance over the last four years, Stefanowski had praise for the governor’s Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman.
“I hear good things about David Lehman, I hope he stays on when I win,” Stefanowski said.