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March 6, 2023 Other Voices

CT must lift restrictive apprenticeship hiring ratios to fill open trades jobs

Jenn Jennings

As Connecticut’s legislative session opened last month, the state is grappling with a number of public policy issues that will not only impact our short-term needs, but also our long-term economic success and ability to compete.

Investment in our transportation infrastructure is long overdue; the pandemic exposed the need for improved air quality and filtration in our schools and workplaces; and climate change advocacy and use of more eco-friendly energy has strained our state’s electric grid, fueling the need for greater energy efficiency and a smaller carbon footprint.

There are positive signs — and investments — that demonstrate the state is trying to address these challenges. Tens of millions of federal dollars are flowing into the state to fix roads, repair bridges and modernize public transportation.

This past September, Gov. Ned Lamont announced that $150 million in state funds — supplemented with an additional $165 million in federal COVID-relief funds — will be made available to upgrade aging and inefficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in our public schools.

Despite these positive developments, the state still faces headwinds.

That’s because addressing these challenges will require a qualified workforce of skilled tradespeople — including construction, electrical, plumbing, HVAC — and there’s a well-documented shortage of qualified talent for these roles in Connecticut.

Our workforce in the trades is graying and retiring in great numbers, and the next generation is ill-prepared to fill the void, leaving thousands of potential job openings in Connecticut.

The skilled trades gap, however, is entirely self-inflicted by the state-restrictive apprenticeship hiring ratios, which allow only one apprentice to be hired for every three licensed individuals at a company.

Among dozens of trade-based careers, this hiring ratio only applies to five — heating, cooling, plumbing, electrical and sheet metal workers.

By comparison, the state’s job-site ratio — designed to ensure workplace safety and adequate training — requires one licensed professional to supervise an apprentice while on the job.

Eliminating the restrictive hiring ratio to match the 1:1 job-site ratio will continue to protect safety and adequate training of the industry while promoting workforce development, meeting consumer demand, servicing existing clients and growing Connecticut business.

Staffing capacity limits

Connecticut’s hiring ratio is among the most restrictive in the nation and puts the state at a competitive disadvantage, particularly compared to neighboring states that all allow for multiple apprentices to be hired for every one licensed professional.

While I applaud Connecticut’s investment in its technical high schools, we risk losing young, trained talent to nearby states where apprenticeships are easier to secure.

Connecticut’s current hiring ratio is regulating competition, leading to fewer apprentices, higher prices and longer service wait times for Connecticut consumers.

An August 2022 survey of Connecticut Heating and Cooling Contractors Association members found that 32% of respondents had stopped accepting new business because they lacked the staffing capacity to meet demand.

To meet growing consumer demand, we need to ensure we’re building that pipeline of talent — and providing the necessary on-the-job apprenticeships. Skilled trade careers can be a pathway to meaningful economic stability for many state residents, particularly for youth in our state’s economically-challenged urban centers.

A survey of the Connecticut Heating and Cooling Contractors Association’s membership found that apprentices’ hourly wages range from $20 to $27 an hour, and pre-apprenticeships for students from Connecticut’s technical high schools pay $15-plus an hour, allowing students to earn income as the learn.

By comparison, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average federal student loan debt for college students in 2022 was $37,574.

Trade-based careers and apprenticeships can — and should — play a key role in leveling the playing field and providing economic mobility, while helping Connecticut improve its transportation infrastructure, public health, energy and create its carbon-neutral future.

But that means removing the barriers to apprenticeship and eliminating the hiring ratio.

Jenn Jennings is the executive director of the Glastonbury-based Connecticut Heating and Cooling Contractors Association.

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