Technology Reshapes Leading Companies

Special to The Courant

Traditional banks turned into diversified financial institutions. Manufacturers evolved into leaner, higher-technology operations with fewer production workers.

Those two trends explain a lot about how employment has changed on the list of Connecticut's 100-largest publicly traded companies in the past five years. It is a mixed picture with an overall result of modest growth.

The companies might have slashed jobs at their operations throughout the country or around the globe. But when it came to employment close to their hometowns, most of the top firms have either held steady or actually expanded since 1997.

Many of them had already done a generation's worth of deep cutting earlier in the `90s.

Among manufacturers, for example, the stable employment levels of late follow a dramatic shedding from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s of more than 100,000 jobs in Connecticut as a whole, many of them held by hourly factory workers. Production jobs are still being replaced by salaried engineering, sales, development and other white-collar positions.

Employment at The Courant 100 corporate front offices - an industry unto itself - in many cases grew in the past five years, after years of paring down. Indeed, employment at the headquarters of Darien-based Hungarian Telephone & Cable Corp. hasn't dropped in years: It still has just one employee.

Among the companies with substantial local corporate staffs, many seem to have made efforts to maintain head office head count since the late '90s. Most hesitate to admit that, insisting that efficiency is their goal.

The brightest stars shine within the financial service industry, where a dramatic increase in job growth has occurred, a result of both acquisitions and changes in federal securities law that allow banks to sell insurance and other financial products.

"There's clearly been growth in financial services," said Joseph McGee, a vice president at SACIA, a southwestern Connecticut business group. "And if you're a sophisticated manufacturing operation, you can still do business here. But if you're just bending metal or making lipstick covers, unless you're automated or moved offshore, it's tough to be profitable in the state and compete against the Chinas of the world."

At manufacturers such as Pitney Bowes of Stamford, a worldwide maker of equipment to manage mail and documents, lean operations have kept the company strong enough to maintain a steady workforce of 6,000 for the half-decade, despite the recession.

"Their manufacturing operations are more sophisticated today than ever," said McGee, whose economic council in lower Fairfield County represents many of the largest companies.

But not all companies, especially among old-line manufacturing firms, have fared so well at maintaining local jobs. The Stanley Works, which sought last month to change its corporate registration to Bermuda to cut its federal taxes, has slashed about 1,000 factory jobs in the past five years in its hometown of New Britain and in Farmington - sending them to Mexico, Asia and elsewhere, where labor costs are lower.

In response, labor unions are pushing manufacturers to preserve factory jobs in the state by creating apprenticeship programs.

"If the bleeding doesn't stop, and there's not an aggressive program to replace older workers, we'll lose a lot of good skilled workers, and there won't be jobs to pass on to younger workers here in Connecticut," said James Parent, assistant directing business representative of District 26 of the Machinists union.

Bloomfield-based Kaman Corp., faced with a downturn in its commercial aerospace business, trimmed its workforce by 15 percent in recent years. But the number would have been higher, said Russell H. Jones, Kaman's vice president and treasurer, were it not for the company's "lean-thinking principles" of cutting costs and running more efficient manufacturing operations that enable it to compete more effectively.

More reliance on computerized operations also explains why employment at giant Hartford-based conglomerate United Technologies Corp. is unchanged in the state. That steady level, just under 29,000 people, was achieved following the elimination of thousands of jobs at its divisions in the state in the early 1990s. And although factory jobs have been cut, UTC, like The Stanley Works, has added salaried jobs in Connecticut.

Indeed, more and more, UTC units are relying on Web-based software to cut costs and increase productivity, said UTC spokesman Paul Jackson. At its Farmington-based Otis Elevator unit, for example, customers can virtually design their own elevators online, supplying otherwise time-consuming information to Otis engineers. And UTC Fuel Cells in South Windsor, by focusing on research and development, chiefly toward developing fuel cells to power cars and other vehicles, has added 300 employees since 1999, mostly engineers.

UTC's Windsor Locks-based Hamilton Sundstrand unit slashed employment more than a quarter - from 5,550 to 4,100 - in the past five years, but since 1999 employment has remained steady, largely due to the acquisition of Sunstrand Corp. that year.

Both Hamilton Sundstrand, and its sister division, East Hartford-based Pratt & Whitney, have benefited in recent years from increased military spending, which has softened the effect of a downturn in the commercial aerospace industry. Pratt's employment level has remained at 13,000 workers since the mid-`90s, after the company cut nearly 8,000 jobs, but it has continued to replace production workers with engineers.

As with Hamilton, military contracts have also allowed Pratt to maintain employment levels, thanks largely to engine development for the U.S. military's Joint Strike Fighter and F-22, potentially the largest piece of new military business Pratt has had since World War II.

The picture among the top financial institutions in the state is far more dramatic on the upside. State employment at Webster Financial Corp., parent of Webster Bank, surged by 67 percent as it acquired smaller banks, including Eagle Financial Corp., and entered the insurance business. At Bridgeport-based People's Bank, employment increased by 27 percent in the past five years, as it opened new branches, acquired Norwich Savings Society and bought two insurance agencies.

"The traditional commercial banking operations have become far more sophisticated financial service institutions," said McGee, offering a broad mix of products. That also has fueled a rise in the service economy in the state, said McGee, but not with low-wage jobs; rather, it's triggered an increase in accounting, consulting, legal, marketing and information technology work.

Among the state's insurance companies, several based in Hartford, employment levels have remained fairly steady, given the cost-cutting in that industry. Although Aetna Inc. has cut 11,000 jobs companywide, it only has eliminated about 350 jobs in the state, said Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge.

And at Travelers Property Casualty Corp., spun off in an initial public offering earlier this year from Citigroup, employment in the state also remains constant - at about 5,800. About 1,200 Connecticut employees at Travelers' life and annuity business remain under Citigroup, and are no longer counted in the Travelers Property Casualty totals.

The state's largest publicly traded companies, in short, look a lot like Connecticut employers as a whole.

In the next five years, "growth in the state will be led by technology, whether it's insurance, finance or airline parts," said Peter Gioia, an economist with the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

At risk, he said, are residents without skills or education. "They're the ones who will really be out of luck in this economy," he said. Even supermarkets in Connecticut, where low-skill workers could always depend on jobs, are moving toward high-tech, with electronic checkouts beginning to show up throughout the state. Said Gioia: "The employees that supermarkets will need are I.T. professionals."

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