Recoiling from the prospect of groaning student debt and a still-soft job market, more high-schoolers consider a career in the skilled trades

 

There’s never been a better time to be working with your hands. Really.

Chances are if you’ve needed to hire a handyman over the last few years — be it a plumber, electrician or HVAC person — you may have been having a harder time than ever before pinning one down.  The good news is: It’s not just you. The bad news is: It’s not just you.

The United States faces a growing shortage of skilled trades workers — the product of an aging labor force nearing or reaching retirement age and not enough new workers coming in to take their places (a problem manufacturers are already struggling to deal with for the same reasons).

According to 2013 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Quarterly Workforce Indicators, 73.5 percent of skilled tradespeople nationwide are over the age of 45, with 20.6 percent over age 55. The Northeast is facing the biggest shortages, and unfortunately Connecticut is the worst off: 91 percent of our tradesmen and -women are age 45 and up, with 27.3 percent over age 55.

This all coincidentally aligns with the greater emphasis over the latter half of the last decade on sending teens to college to ensure they’ll get ahead. Pair that with the less-than-glamorous perception of working in a dark factory or unclogging toilets, and a trade job is likely not even an option to the average 18-year-old plotting a career.

“It’s not necessarily known as an occupation that parents are encouraging their children to get into; everyone wants their children to go to college,” says Judy Resnick, executive director of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association’s (CBIA) Education Foundation.

“Many outside resources overlook the potential value in skilled training programs and steer students toward four-year schools in a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t really fit everyone. Not everyone can succeed in a traditional school environment,” says Nicole Givens, director of admissions at Lincoln Technical Institute/Lincoln Culinary Institute in Shelton. “[Some students] want to work with their hands and work on cars — install high-voltage systems, build computer networks. They won’t find their path at a traditional college.”

The Connecticut Technical High School system currently has some 11,000 full-time and 5,500 part-time students at 20 schools statewide. Ray Mencio, education consultant for Platt Technical High School in Milford, says finding qualified students is always a challenge, with about one out of every four applicants getting into the school.

“If we had five more schools we’d be even better off,” Mencio says. “In everything from construction to manufacturing, there’s such a great need for people that if we graduated everyone we probably still wouldn’t have enough” to meet demand.

The recession that began in 2008 played an unwelcome role in this state of affairs. When residential and commercial construction slowed to a halt, it not only meant current workers were out of the job, but it also put the brakes on training new apprentices.

“People didn’t have work and weren’t [taking] on new apprentices, and when you have four to five years without training new people, you’re behind the ball,” explains Mencio. “And with the baby boomers turning 65 years old, that’s a double-whammy. We’ll feel this for ten to 12 more years.”

Resnick concurs that time is of the essence, but turning out a new general of workers in the trades won’t happen quickly, which is especially bad news as construction recovers, albeit slowly.

“You can’t just turn it on and someone comes out a plumber in six months,” Resnick notes. “There is going to be a huge gap between the demand and how fast the pipeline can turn out workers. As things improve, we’re all of a sudden going to say, ‘Oh my God, we don’t have anybody.’”

Mencio says Platt is considering adding more programs after 2:30 p.m. on class days to accommodate more students. But finding more experienced instructors poses its own challenge, as many are in great demand and too busy working as contractors. It makes sense then that the companies who contact him looking for apprentices aren’t looking for just one; they want six at a time.

Himself an experience electrician, Mencio envisions the baby boomers being incentivized to keep working.

“They’ll throw any kind of money at these people who would otherwise be looking to retire, and then passing that on to the consumer,” he says. “I’m going to be 64, and I know already [potential clients are] going to do anything they can to keep me going to 70.”

The key is outreach and encouraging potential students that the trades can be a pathway to a rewarding and lucrative career. That means setting the record straight with parents and schools.

“We have to get to parents; how they view careers is translated to their children,” Resnick says. “What’s more difficult is talking to guidance counselors. In schools where guidance counselors can guide career decisions, it’s important for them to know how these careers have changed, how modern they are, and how high-tech and well-paid they are.

“A plumber with a high school education can make up to $50,000 in their first year,” she says. “If you want a job after graduating a technical high school, you have a job. Think about your car: It’s not a grease-monkey job any more; it’s a computer job now.”

Even as Connecticut struggles to attract new workers to the trades, it trade workers’ average wages — at $21.47 per hour — are above the national average of $20.25.

CBIA currently offers a Connecticut Clean Trades program, which completed a pilot program during the 2013-14 academic year at five technical high schools. The program offers students in HVAC, plumbing, carpentry and electrical programs hands-on energy and sustainability projects to understand how the trades fit in to the emerging green energy market. It also offers other educational programs and training grants for small businesses.

The United Association Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 777 union offers apprenticeship programs that run six weeks per year for five years giving apprentices on-the-job training allowing them to earn wages while learning the trade.

Business manager Michael Rosario and head of apprentice training programs Frank DeCato say enrollment in their programs is strong. To date this year they’ve accepted 36 apprentices out of 336 applicants (411 applied in 2013). They give special consideration to returning war veterans and minorities.

But they admit that a perception issue certainly hangs over the plumbing trade.

“The first that that people think about plumbers is fixing toilets. It’s not a glamorous trade, but that’s not really the whole trade,” DeCato says. “People don’t think of the hospital operating rooms with medical gas lines, [or] wastewater treatment and sewage centers. Electricians have less a problem than we do.”

Rosario adds that the pool of applicants has been of high caliber as well.

“We’ve had kids apply from Notre Dame High School with very high grades,” he says. “The thought with their parents is that it’s going to cost $100,000 for a four-year college, and they’ll be thousands of dollars in debt. But they can come with us and do a five-year apprenticeship that won’t cost them anything, and they’ll earn while they learn.”

The old idea of union workers doesn’t apply to them, either; they want and need the cream of the crop.

“The unions have the image of one guy working and five guys just standing around. That’s not what we’re about. If a person’s not producing, you’re not going to hold on to them, and the union won’t, either. It’s our reputation that’s out there,” DeCato adds. “And we’re big on math and science; if you can’t do math you can’t do the trade.”

Rosario likewise agrees that early awareness is key not only to changing perception but putting a trade like plumbing onto students’ radars as an attractive career option. Local 777 does career days at high schools in the state to spread the word.

“Maybe all the trades should take a step further and introduce more programs even to the middle-schoolers,” he says. “Obviously college isn’t for everyone, and not everyone can afford it.”

“What would be helpful is a consistent, educational and informative campaign broadcast not only to students, but also to parents, guidance counselors, teachers – everyone who has an influence on today’s students detailing the specific benefits of career training,” Givens adds.

Skilled Lincoln Tech trade graduates are typically well-placed. Roughly 70 percent of graduates of the electrical program in Shelton are placed in jobs in their field (between 76 and 66 percent of graduates in the day and night programs actually graduate; 40 students in spring 2013).

 Many of the same issues faced by the skilled trades almost perfectly echo those faced by manufacturers in recent years. Though, as Resnick notes, “Manufacturing has had a head start,” with government incentives and programs having been started in recent years to boost worker training and hiring at manufacturing firms statewide.

A prime example is the establishment of Advanced Manufacturing Centers (AMCs) at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury and Quinebaug Community College in Danielson in 2012 (the first was opened at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield in 1998), offering certificate programs in machine technology.

Manufacturing has long been plagued by the perception of “three Ds” — dark, dirty and dangerous — that fill young people’s and their parents’ minds with visions of working in a dank and dangerous factory. The AMCs themselves demonstrate a modern shop floor: clean, open, safe and high-tech.

“It’s not a dirty, grungy sweatshop anymore — it’s essentially lab coat, because you’re programming machines,” says Mike Gugger, program director at Housatonic’s AMC, which operates as a real-life factory floor. The program has a capacity for 50 students at a time (though the first class had 56), and those who are admitted must successfully be evaluated for their math and measurement skills beforehand.

“It’s a challenging program,” says Guggers. “So many trades get a bad rap because of the idea that you’re not smart enough or you couldn’t succeed in college. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This requires genius on both sides. You need the ability to analyze and conceptualize — to be able to size within the width of a single hair.”

There’s a similar demand for manufacturing workers, especially those skilled in new technologies, to replace the existing, and aging, workforce. Gugger says it’s probable that every graduate from the AMC will be placed in a job before the summer is over — even those who aren’t will likely go on to further education in pursuit of associate’s or engineering degrees.

“The demand is there, the jobs are there,” Guggers says. “We need this industry because it’s the backbone of our economy, and if we don’t support it, it will leave again.”

James Troup, provost of Naugatuck Valley Community College, says his school’s AMC had similar attendance and will in fact be adding nighttime cohorts to accommodate more students. The center gets feedback from area manufacturers to tailor its lessons to the needs of the companies.

“There continue to be lots of job openings for the right people — good, well-paying jobs and that will not change as more people are retiring,” Troup explains. “There is tremendous optimism in Connecticut about industries like aerospace, which could really go through the roof.”

Both AMCs expect to offer part-time courses for incumbent worker training in the near future, but in the meantime market themselves to high-schoolers and the community to remind them that manufacturing is a viable option.

The demand for skilled workers will especially increase, many project, not only as construction recovers over the next few years, but as standards start to lean more toward energy-efficient technologies and practices — not only in new construction but in the retrofitting of existing buildings. 

“There’s an increased focus on sustainability and energy-efficiency,” Resnick says. “Connecticut has some of the highest energy costs in the country, so there’s a particular push here that exacerbates the need. If you want solar you need a plumber; you need an electrician. And the software is sophisticated and needs to be built with tradespeople.”

“The building codes are changing to where you’ll need ten percent renewable-energy sources. When that explodes in the next five years it’s going to be massive in terms of educating people and putting them out in the workforce,” Mencio adds.

In the meantime, those now lucky enough to pursue a career in the skilled trades will likely prosper as those saddled with groaning debt from a traditional college education face a still-lagging job market.

“If there was anything that really needs to be done, it’s getting the public’s perception of what the trades are about and have them understand that their children don’t need to go to college in order to make a decent living,” DeCato says. “We’re not going to become billionaires, but you’ll make a living, provide for a family and retire comfortably.”