DANBURY — Even though millions of dollars of incentives have been doled out to manufacturers in Connecticut, the state Department of Labor thinks many of its programs are a well-kept secret.

“Whether your company is expanding, starting up, downsizing, relocating, upgrading equipment, training employees, recruiting, bringing on an apprentice or needs regulatory help, the Department of Labor has assistance available,” Lori-lynn Chatlos, a Bridgeport-based business services specialist with the Labor Department, said. “Manufacturers aren’t always just looking for a new machine. Sometimes they are looking for other ways to bring down costs or work more efficiently.”

One of the most popular programs has been the Manufacturing Innovation Fund Voucher Program, which helps companies with projects to improve productivity and efficiency. Matching grants of up to $50,000 are available. Businesses have used the program for projects such as equipment upgrades, workforce development and patenting.

As of May 31, 239 companies have utilized the program and received nearly $8 million.

Another popular program is the Manufacturing Innovation Fund Incumbent Worker Training, which offers matching grants of up to $100,000. Nearly 150 companies have received more than $3.3 million.

Steven Bull, president of the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce, has been critical of the state as its high taxes and strict regulations put Connecticut toward the bottom of most “business friendly” state lists. Bull, however, praised the workforce development incentives and said many manufacturers in the Danbury area have taken advantage of them. He said the incumbent worker training and On-the-Job Training grants have been especially popular.

“These two programs have been very well received,” said Bull, who is also a board member of the Housatonic Industrial Development Corp. “It’s been great for the Danbury area.”

Local companies such as Barden, Photronics, Branson, Fuel Cell, O2 Concepts and Imperial Electronic Assembly have utilized state programs.

Chatlos said the state has put a heavy emphasis on revitalizing manufacturing in the state over the past few years. The many incentive programs seem to be helping, as the rapid decline of manufacturing jobs in the state has leveled off.

According to the 2017 Connecticut Manufacturers Register, an industrial database published by Manufacturers’ News, there was positive job growth in the state between June 2015 and June 2016 in the industry. It marked the state’s first year-over-year job increase in manufacturing in more than a decade. Connecticut’s manufacturing employment numbers are still far off historic highs, however.

“Lately, everything has been pretty good news. People are asking about acquisitions, factory expansions, equipment purchases and research,” Chatlos said. “Companies that have made it through the recession are doing things they’ve never done before. They are diversifying, and many are picking up work from the manufacturers that didn’t make it through the recession.”

Aerospace, transportation and biomedical manufacturing are particularly strong in Connecticut, she said.

The state Labor Department is hoping the incentives will continue to facilitate growth in manufacturing. In its Industry Projections for 2014-2024 report, the department predicts manufacturing employment in Connecticut will increase 2.8 percent, from 159,604 to 163,997 jobs.

Deputy Commissioner Kurt Westby said that as word spreads about the incentives available to state manufacturers, more companies will take advantage of them to grow within the state.

“Connecticut employers are often amazed to discover the variety of wage incentives and training funds we can offer to help a business expand or keep employees up-to-date on the latest technology,” Westby said. “A strong economy is dependent on a strong workforce and providing opportunities for businesses to grow. The Labor Department, along with other agencies and partners, is developing some very innovative options to help promote growth in our state.”

Training programs are particularly useful, Westby said, as manufacturing becomes increasingly high-tech. Even longtime employees need training periodically as equipment upgrades are made.

The Incumbent Worker Training program offers matching grants to cover up to half the cost of training existing employees. The Subsidized Employment and Training Program, also called Step Up, provides wage subsidies and training grants of up to $12,500 to companies hiring an unemployed jobseeker or veteran. Step Up has assisted in the hiring of 3,800 employees at more than 1,200 companies, according to the state Labor Department.

“The incumbent training has been great,” Chatlos said. “Now we are looking to beef up our apprenticeship programs.”

The Manufacturing Innovation Fund Apprenticeship Program is a $7.8 million program in partnership with the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development. Employers may receive grants of up to $13,000 for wages, $3,750 for tuition and $2,000 for credentialing costs. The American Apprenticeship Initiative is another program that seeks to train the workforce of the future.

“We still have an aging workforce problem,” Chatlos said. “That why the apprenticeship programs are so important.”

Finding the right employees is another challenge often faced by manufacturers. Chatlos said the state’s recruiting assistance services have been in high demand lately. The State Job Bank links jobseekers with potential employers, while the Labor Department will also facilitate small job fairs for companies. It also plays host to eight to 10 large career fairs each year, Chatlos said.

Staff are working with displaced workers from Altice’s takeover of Cablevision, Chatlos said.

“Training is the biggest thing for manufacturers, but recruitment is also big,” she said.

The state, Chatlos said, is also there for manufacturers who are going through difficult times. The Shared Work program helps employers keep workers during business downturns by providing weekly unemployment compensation to workers whose hours have been reduced. It ensures the workers will be available for regular hours when business returns to normal.

“Employers can’t afford to lose their skilled employees,” Chatlos said.

The Labor Department has several field offices staffed by business service specialists throughout the state. The Northwest Region office, staffed by Michelle Caffe, is in the Waterbury American Job Center. The office may be reached at 203-437-3308.

cbosak@hearstmediact.com; 203-731-3338