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Connecticut officials have touted workforce development as key to the state’s economic recovery from COVID-19, but some contractors say restrictions on apprenticeship hiring affect their ability to recruit new employees, even as the industry faces a labor shortage is.
The state consumer protection ministry prescribes a so-called “employment quota” for contractors in the areas of electrics, plumbing and metal processing. The rule is a bit technical, but essentially requires contractors to have a certain number of licensed apprentices on staff for each trainee they hire.
The ratio enables contractors to hire up to three trainees in a 1: 1 ratio. This means that a company must employ three licensed journeymen if it wants three apprentices. It would take two journeymen for two apprentices.
After the first three hires, employers must adhere to a 3: 1 ratio. This means that a company has to have three additional apprentices for each new apprentice.
A company with 12 licensed journeymen can only employ six trainees.
The rule is backed by trade unions and at least one democratic legislature, which states that less experienced and unlicensed workers are properly supervised. Proponents say the ratio also prevents contractors from hiring large numbers of apprentices who can serve as cheaper workers compared to more experienced workers, some of whom are union members.
However, Stillman Jordan, vice president of Environmental Control LLC (ENCON) in Stratford, said the mandate puts a practical strain on his company’s ability to hire new employees.
ENCON installs and maintains heating, air conditioning and solar power systems for residential and commercial buildings. At any given point in time, the company has a backlog of five to ten potential trainees who are ready to work but cannot do so until ENCON has hired enough apprentices. Apprentices typically start between $ 16 and $ 19 an hour.
The relationship forces contractors to vigorously compete for skilled artisans as the industry faces a labor shortage. Some companies offer big perks, including up to $ 10,000 in signing bonuses, Jordan said, which increases the cost of doing business and ultimately leads to higher prices for customers.
“We’re talking about the job crisis. I have high-paying jobs, but I can’t hire people,” said Jordan. “The reason we haven’t hired people to work here is because of the recruitment rate.”
Meanwhile, a Republican legislature recently tabled a bill in the General Assembly aimed at lowering the hiring rate, which the business community supports.
Although Connecticut’s economy has stalled in the face of the pandemic, the demand for commercial jobs remains strong.
For example, Connecticut currently has 700 vacancies for HVAC technicians and 3,200 vacancies for electricians. This is based on data from Build Your Future, a nonprofit that focuses on recruiting workers for the craft.
Russell Jarem, an attorney who represents employers for the Jackson Lewis PC law firm, says the apprentice-to-apprentice relationship in Connecticut applies to companies in these two fields as well as to the plumbing, sprinkler, and sheet metal industries.
After companies hire their first three apprentices at a 1: 1 ratio, they can request a waiver to continue hiring at that rate, Jarem said.
But contractors say the bureaucracy is still stifling and it is an issue they have been trying to reform for years. In 2017, legislators reacted by adapting the regulations and setting up a working group that meets regularly to discuss the challenges facing the industry.
It’s not enough, however, and policies don’t seem to align with government workforce development goals, said Chris Fryxell, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Connecticut trade association for the construction industry.
Governor Ned Lamont has made human resource development a top priority and has even established a new unit within the state government to oversee workforce strategies and programs.
“We don’t believe states should limit the number of trainees contractors can hire,” Fryxell said. “We have to get young people into the industry and the state is making it harder to do that.”
Rep. Tim Ackert (R-Coventry) said he recently tabled a bill permanently fixing the hiring ratio at 1: 1, which is the ratio the company is allowed to have on an actual construction site. He said the current hiring rate is affecting workforce development in the state.
“I see young people going to business schools and then there are no jobs for them,” said Ackert, a licensed electrical contractor who owns Coventry-based Ackert Electric LLC. “There are people who want to hire them, but they can’t because there is a relationship.”
Security and training
The Hartford Chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) is one of the supporters of the relationship.
Chris Brown, Hartford Electricians Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee trainer and treasurer of the Hartford Chapter of IBEW, said ratio requirements are an important safeguard against companies that rely too heavily on inexperienced workers. Eliminating them could make construction sites more dangerous and make the job market less hospitable for higher paid licensed workers with more experience, Brown said.
According to Brown, an excerpt already exists in the possibility for companies to request a waiver.
“You should have to show that you really have this need [for a waiver]”Said Brown.” I just don’t see any need to change the relationship … and flood the market with too many trainees. “
State Senator Julie Kushner (D-Danbury) chairs the General Assembly’s Labor & Public Employees Committee and said the recruitment rate ensures apprentices receive adequate training. If a company has few licensed professionals who train large numbers of apprentices, they can receive below average instruction.
“It’s important that they are well trained so that when they become licensed journeyman they are really well qualified to do the job,” said Kushner. “It is very important for all of us as consumers that they are well trained if we want to license journeyman.”
Kushner found that the nationwide unemployment rate for journeyman workers is around 30%, suggesting that contractors already have a pool of experienced workers to hire.
Jordan said easing restrictions will help the state meet its workforce development goals.
“The challenge is that when you’re running a business, if we don’t solve it, the pain gets to the point where we will fight,” said Jordan.
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