September 3, 2018
Special Series: Building Connecticut's Workforce Pipeline

Apprenticeships: Revival of 'gold standard' workforce-development tool

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
Apprentice Robert “Bobby” Minor (left) and tool-room foreman Lionel And˙jar, both of Spartan Aerospace in Manchester, measure an aerospace component.
Photo | Contributed
(From left) Synergy High School grads Olivia Hernandez and Faviela Delgado with Paul Polo, vice president of ACMT Inc., and State Sen. Tim Larson, (D-East Hartford).

Apprenticeships slowly growing in popularity

The state's Office of Apprenticeship Training currently has 1,674 apprentice sponsor employers, up from 1,583 in 2013. Meantime, there are 6,343 registered apprentices in the state of Connecticut, up from 4,596 in 2013.

Bobby Minor, a 19-year-old from Enfield, has the makings of an up-and-coming apprentice at Manchester's Spartan Aerospace with a good future in manufacturing: bright, dependable, eager to learn and build himself a career.

Indeed, Spartan engineering manager Lionel And˙jar sees a lot of himself in Minor, a graduate of Manchester's Horace Cheney Technical High School. Decades earlier, And˙jar landed an apprentice job with an aeroparts maker soon after arriving in Connecticut from his native Puerto Rico, where he had trained to be an auto mechanic.

"He reminds me of me when I was apprenticing,'' said And˙jar, whose eagerness to craft a life-earning skill led him in quick order to supervise the Meriden firm's tool shop. "He has that drive.''

Apprenticeships, the age-old means of transferring the knowledge of man-made technology and technical expertise from one generation to the next, are re-emerging across Connecticut and the U.S., offering gainful employment and career opportunities to Millennials and others.

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Connecticut's capital-goods producers, including its leading jet-engine and submarine builders and their supply chains, came into 2018 looking to hire some 13,000 workers by the end of this year, according to one estimate.

However, that hiring bright spot is tempered by the continued shortage of skilled metalworkers, machinery programmers and operators, design and quality-control engineers, warehouse and tool-shop managers, among many others.

With thousands of Connecticut young adults struggling to find their place either through education or employment, apprenticeships have a new sheen, observers say.

But forget those images of skills neophytes toiling away in smoky, dangerous shop floors. Not only are modern manufacturing shops cooler and safer, but in the last five years, apprenticeships have also emerged for aspiring construction workers, electricians, welders, medical coders, and nurses, too. Apprentices and other trainees occupy the lowest rung of the skills-development ladder, with participants advancing through learning and experience to "journeyman,'' then "master'' craftsperson.

The process can take time. Apprenticeships at Spartan Aerospace, for example, run 6,000 to 8,000 hours depending on the discipline.

Connecticut, from its Colonial days when agriculture, black- and gunsmithing and other rudimentary metalworking skills predominated, through the Industrial Revolution that gave rise to Colt's firearms and other manufacturers, has had a storied role in the introduction and evolution of apprenticing.

To prevent the abuse of child labor, a former Connecticut labor commissioner turned congressman enacted basic training and workplace standards in the '30s to widen apprenticeships nationwide.

Today, Connecticut workforce-development advocates are pushing for an even greater role and impact for apprenticeships. State lawmakers at the end of this year's legislative session, for example, quietly authorized the state Bond Commission to appropriate $50 million for an "Apprenticeship Connecticut" initiative that would identify and make "job ready'' up to 10,000 unemployed and underemployed residents, ranging from teens to middle-agers, authorities say.

They would help fill job shortages in manufacturing, health care and construction, but it's unclear if that funding will be greenlighted, especially amid the state's fiscal woes. At the most recent Bond Commission meeting in July, no funding was allocated for the program.

Along with money, more attention and focus is being placed, observers say, on facilitating large and small Connecticut companies to recruit, train and retain more apprentices.

Labor's perspective

Todd Berch, a former union pipefitter, is Connecticut's top apprenticeship promoter as program manager for the state Department of Labor. Berch also sits on the board of the National Association of State and Territorial Apprenticeship Directors.

Berch says Connecticut has been federally designated as a "state apprenticeship agency,'' one of 31 states and U.S. territories so named.

Connecticut is home to more than 6,300 registered apprentices at some 1,674 employers, Berch said. Any industry with a training component is conducive to using apprentices.

"Apprentices are what we consider the 'gold standard' workforce-development tool,'' Berch said.

Berch said a misplaced perception still exists that everyone should get a college degree before plowing into the workplace to embrace a skill or trade. In turn, that fans public misperceptions about the value of apprenticeships, he said.

Apprentices not only get on-the-job training, but they also benefit from some in-house and college instruction — and get paid to do it. Apprentices typically start off near the state minimum wage, with the prospect of quick raises as skills improve, to $50,000 or more annually within a few years. A growing number of manufacturers offer flexible work schedules, or pay all or part of apprentices' and journeymens' tuition, to obtain college degrees or advanced certifications.

College enrollees face two to four years of classroom instruction and internships, and some emerge with a piece of paper, no job and loads of student-loan debt.

"So, who's better off?'' Berch said.

State efforts aimed at boosting student participation and graduation in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — are fine, he said. But there should be consideration of adding a fifth subject, manufacturing skills training, to that.

"There's no shame in working with your hands,'' Berch said.

He knows first hand. Berch began his worklife as an apprentice welder, learning to fit steam pipes. He got his apprenticeship card in 1984 and his earnings enabled him to buy a car and a house. Fortunately, he says he lacked college debt.

"I attained the skills to pay the bills,'' Berch said.

Employers must be more active

Much of what is lacking in Connecticut's and America's efforts to expand the value and appeal of apprenticeships reflects on employers, many of whom do not understand what they can do for their companies and industries, Berch said.

He said he and his staff often are the first to contact employers, to make them aware of the kinds of state-sponsored apprenticeship programs and resources, many aimed at supporting employers.

He says his first questions to the CEO or human-resources executive is: "What is your training program?" and "How successful is it?"

Often, Berch says, employers are too caught up in designing, making and marketing their products to look at what they do from the perspective of potential apprentices and other hirees. Some cannot articulate to their hiring staffers or to job prospects what it is they do or make and how hirees are expected to contribute to and advance the company's aims.

"They're talking in their industry-speak,'' Berch said.

Others skeptically see Berch and his staff as nosy regulators eager to find glitches for which they can sanction employers. The reality is, he said, he and his staff are not regulators but will sit with manufacturers and help them design an effective apprenticeship program.

Fresh talent

Spartan Aerospace is one employer actively embracing apprentices, most coming from Manchester's Howell Cheney Technical High School, according to Spartan President Allan Lehrer.

"We work with the school to find candidates for our program," he said. "Preferably a student joins us prior to their senior year of school to help kickstart their career, if not they start after graduation."

Apprentices work as part-time employees performing the same tasks as any worker, Lehrer said. During their tenure, they are paired with journeymen in their chosen field and can endure thousands of hours of training.

Upon mastery and fulfilment of time performance requirements, apprentices gain "journeyman" status, he said.

"Our apprentices start out well above state minimum wage levels and are guaranteed $1 an hour increases after every 1,000 hours completed," said Lehrer, whose company currently has five apprentices in various stages of the program.

An example of state-industry apprenticeship partnering came June 18, with the graduation of 12 pupils from East Hartford's Synergy Alternative High School for youths with academic and social challenges.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, along with officials from the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT) and several employers were on hand as graduates collected not only pre-apprenticeship training certificates, but most also received job offers.

Malloy told the dozen Synergy pre-apprenticeship grads that Connecticut ranks among the top states in apprenticeships and urged them to take advantage of skills-training that could one day yield a six-figure paycheck.

Olivia Hernandez, 18, can't wait to find out. One of the 12 recent Synergy pre-apprenticeship graduates, Hernandez said she knew nothing about aerospace composites but had heard all the negative stereotypes about manufacturing before she was placed at ACMT Inc. in Manchester.

"I thought it was dirt and dust and oil everywhere,'' she said, with certificate in hand. "I would definitely encourage them to give it a good look."

At graduation, ACMT offered her and several Synergy classmates full-time jobs, starting at $15 an hour and with benefits.

"I can see myself in a manufacturing career and thriving in it,'' Hernandez said.

Classmate Faviela Delgado, 19, of East Hartford, learned computer numerically controlled machine programming and worked on jet-engine fan blades during her ACMT pre-apprenticeship stint. There, she says she witnessed the gender gap in manufacturing.

"You see mostly men. You don't see women. But a woman can do it,'' said Delgado who plans to enroll in one of Manchester Community College's precision and advanced manufacturing programs this fall.

Another Synergy grad, Angel Carrasquillo, 17, of East Hartford, did quality-control tasks at ACMT. Carrasquillo recalls as a child accompanying his grandfather on paydays to collect his check from one of Pratt & Whitney's area supply-chain vendors, and gawking at the clattering machinery on the shop floor.

He amazed his grandfather when he told him he is considering a manufacturing career.

"It surprised him because he never thought I'd be interested in something he was doing,'' he said.

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