Students take to trade careers
WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — When Trevor Gursky, 20, was a high school student, he didn’t know a bright future awaited him as an electrician.
Teachers and counselors ingrained in him that a college degree is necessary for a financially stable life, so he enrolled at Naugatuck Valley Community College.
“It was never ‘what do you want to do,’ it was always ‘what college do you want to go to,’” he said. “I did a semester at NVCC and halfway through I knew I didn’t want that. I couldn’t see myself doing that for four more years and doing a desk job.”
After dropping out he enrolled in an electrical program at the Industrial Management and Training Institute in Waterbury.
“My father, he’s a carpenter. I worked with him whenever he needed help, here and there, and I really enjoyed that,” Gursky said.
Far from committing career suicide, Gursky is on track to enter a profession with a hot market and good pay. The average annual wage for an electrician in Connecticut is $57,000 but unionized electrical contractors can make over $60,000 per year during their apprenticeships and graduate to a salary over $90,000, according to Kevin Tighe, executive director of workforce development and labor relations at the National Electrical Contractors Association, an advocacy group for the electrical contracting industry.
Yet the trades are unable to recruit enough workers to avoid a severe national shortage, which is putting stress on industries that rely on them like construction and manufacturing.
“It’s pretty clear that we’ve got an epidemic issue,” said Greg Ugalde, president of T&M Building in Torrington and chairman of the National Association of Home Builders.
Ugalde said the shortage could be as severe as 280,000 workers nationwide.
A NAHB survey released last year found 83 percent of builders reported raising home prices because of the labor shortage, an increase of 22 percent from 2015. The same survey found 37 percent of builders reported a serious shortage of carpenters, 17 percent reported serious issues finding electricians and 15 percent had trouble finding HVAC workers.
Tighe said NECA projects 20,000 new job openings among its member businesses each year for the next 10 years.
Eric Brown, vice president for manufacturing policy and research at the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, said the shortage in Connecticut has translated into 10,000 open manufacturing jobs.
“This is an opportunity for Connecticut to expand it’s middle class, increase its tax base and really, really drive some momentum into our economy,” he said. “If we can’t meet the labor needs, those jobs are going to go elsewhere.”
A common culprit, according to industry professionals and advocates, is a lack of advocacy for the trades at the high school and college level and an overemphasis on sending kids to college.
“Our industry’s challenge is not to be the best kept secret anymore,” said Tighe. “College is not for everybody and being in a trade is not for everybody, but there’s a heck of a better opportunity than people are aware of.”
Waterbury Superintendent of Schools Verna D. Ruffin said she has been meeting with industry groups to design programs that make students aware of opportunities in trade programs.
“How do we partner with those trade schools and how do we work on getting students certifications while they’re still students in high school?” she said. “We need to do more in our schools than just offering an elective course, we need to make it a career path.”
Catherine Awwad, executive director of the Northwest Regional Workforce Investment Board and a Waterbury Board of Education member, said a lot of students who go to trade schools end up going to college instead of entering the workforce, which exacerbates the issue.
“They go there thinking ‘I’m going to be an electrician’ and leave thinking ‘I’m going to be an electrical engineer,’” she said.
Brown said high schools can be disincentivized from recommending careers in trades by evaluation metrics that track how many students enroll in a college program after graduation and judge the school accordingly.
Two bills proposed in the state Senate, S.B. 856 and S.B. 854, seek to correct that by requiring the State Board of Education to consider manufacturers’ workforce needs when evaluating public schools’ educational programs and by requiring schools to hand out materials concerning manufacturing, military and law enforcement careers to students.
Marcel Veronneau, CEO and founder of the Industrial Management and Training Institute, said enrollment is down 20 percent over the past 10 years, despite offering what he says is for many kids a preferable alternative to an expensive four year college degree.
“What happened is that high schools are pushing college,” he said.
Courses at IMTI range from 37 to 78 weeks and cost about $21,000. Students graduate with the certification necessary to enroll in apprenticeships in the electrical, plumbing and HVAC industries. The school has an 86 percent placement rate.
Veronneau said it’s too early to tell what the long-term consequences of the labor shortage will be, but one short term effect is higher wages for tradesmen.
“The average contractor probably charges $85, $90 per hour,” he said.
Gursky’s classmates in an afternoon class about electric circuits on a recent Wednesday afternoon agreed they were under-informed about opportunities in trade.
Robert Karcher, 24, also left NVCC for a career as an electrician after he didn’t take to college.
“I just saw myself spending money on classes I didn’t really need and I chose a path of work and saw the trades and how much they’ve been succeeding lately and how much opportunity is in it, and that really sparked my interest,” he said.
Information from: Republican-American, http://www.rep-am.com