It took about two weeks to assemble the application, recalls Tahjay Greene, a senior at Platt Technical High School in Milford.
First he had to gather his high school transcripts, three teacher recommendations, attendance and community service records and various signatures from school administrators. Then there was the essay portion, which asked, among other questions: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
When all was said and done, Greene was among the less than 13% of applicants who were accepted this year. But it wasn’t admission to college.
Greene landed an internship building military helicopters at Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky Aircraft, in Stratford, where he and 44 fellow high school-aged students became the newest members of the Teamsters Local 1150 this summer. They work full-time for eight weeks during the summers after their junior and senior years, and upon graduation, many receive full-time job offers at the helicopter manufacturer, making $27 to $29 an hour to start.
Sikorsky’s “Career Pathways” program, as it’s known, is one of a growing number of work-based learning programs and apprenticeships that are seeing an upswing in interest in Connecticut.
From 2020 to 2021, the Connecticut technical education system said participation in work-based learning programs — where students work part-time for school credit and pay — rose by 43% to more than 1,000 students across the system’s 17 schools. That far exceeded the department’s annual goal of 10% to 20% growth, according to Patricia King, who supervises the program.
Registered apprenticeships, which are one- to four-year on-the-job training programs offered by employers and trade unions, have also made gains in recent years. According to the state labor department, there were almost 300 more companies employing apprentices in 2022 than there were in 2013. The number of apprentices fluctuated over that time period but has remained above 6,000 for the last six years — up from 4,618 in 2013.
“We call it ‘the other four-year degree,’” state apprenticeship director Todd Berch said. “Instead of going to a classroom every day, you go to the world of work.”
“Upon graduation from college, you get a degree,” Berch said. “Upon graduation from an apprenticeship, you have your career.”
Policy researchers say the rising cost of higher education — and crippling student loan debt — has begun to shift popular thinking about the value of four-year bachelor's degree programs, leading to a renewed focus on career and technical education. These career paths are more affordable (often paid) and line up students with jobs in fields like defense manufacturing, where Connecticut has a considerable need for skilled workers.
In Connecticut, which is among the top five states for defense contract spending, there are about one-third as many jobs in manufacturing today as there were at the sector’s peak in the late 1960s. And much of the current workforce is nearing retirement age.
In order to crew up for a slew of new federal contract work, Connecticut’s defense manufacturers are working together with state agencies, community colleges and labor unions to train underemployed and unemployed workers — and to build career paths for younger students coming up through the state’s school systems.
Students like Greene stand to benefit from those programs, which are heating up almost as quickly as the competition to get in.
Greene said one of his friends applied to Sikorsky’s “Career Pathways” program and wasn’t accepted. Another friend had been “bragging” about his summer job, Greene said, “but once he found out that I got into Sikorsky, the first two weeks he kept texting me, ‘How’s it going? How’s Sikorsky going?”
Nice work if you can get it
There’s a reason work-based learning programs and apprenticeships are so competitive: While their numbers are growing, they’re still in short supply.
Before he was accepted into the Sikorsky program, Ben Pucci, a recent graduate of the electrical trade program at W.F. Kaynor Technical High School in Waterbury, said he had a hard time finding a company that would take him on.
“A lot of the electricians, at least in my area, were so swamped with work, they didn't have enough time to train a one-year apprentice,” Pucci said. “I actually ended up working at Stop & Shop for about six months. Man, that humbled me.”
For small manufacturing companies, hiring and training young, inexperienced workers requires a significant investment of time and money. And it’s hard to know whether it will pay off.
This year, at the urging of business groups, Connecticut lawmakers passed legislation providing a tax credit to small manufacturing companies who take on apprentices. The credit was already available to large corporations, and smaller businesses had been urging the state to expand it.
In testimony to the legislature, representatives from dozens of companies — many of whom are suppliers to larger manufacturers — called on lawmakers to “level the playing field.” They said it’s often the case that they’ll invest in training a young employee, only to see them move on to take a job at a larger company.
“This has made training new employees an unproductive use of time and resources for smaller companies and only exacerbates the current drought of skilled labor in the manufacturing industry,” Rep. Tami Zawistowski, R-Suffield, said in written testimony.
While small companies can now take advantage of that tax credit, the “drought of skilled labor” continues to strain defense manufacturers and their suppliers.
Young people, once they’re trained, are in high demand. The sector’s current workforce is aging: More than one-third of manufacturing workers in Connecticut are over 55, according to the state labor department.
That leverage gives young people the luxury of choices.
Briley Peters, a senior at Emmett O'Brien Technical High School in Ansonia, said some of the interns in her department saw the prospect of working at Sikorsky after high school as “a fallback plan” and were still weighing whether to go to college.
“I’d say it’s split 50-50,” Peters said.
To entice young employees to stay on, many companies including Sikorsky offer reimbursement for the cost of additional schooling. In many cases, but not all, the certification or degree has to be job-related.
“I wasn’t planning on going to college,” said Mikayla DePalma, a Sikorsky intern who graduated this year from Platt Tech. “But coming into Sikorsky, I still have the option to go to college.”
“It definitely beats tens of thousands of dollars of college debt,” Pucci said.
(Pucci and DePalma both accepted job offers at Sikorsky after completing their internships this fall.)
The investment can pay off for companies if it prevents employees from heading somewhere else. And it pays off for the state by keeping skilled, productive workers — and their income taxes — local.
This year, the legislature approved a tax break for businesses that offer education reimbursements to their employees, up to $5,000 a year per person. (The credit was included in the annual budget “implementer” bill, section 419.)
“The big guys were already doing it,” Gov. Ned Lamont told attendees at a recent meeting of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “I like to think this is one more reason [young people] want to stay in Connecticut and one more reason you’d want to hire them,” he said.
In several industries, labor unions take the lead running apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs.
Unions say the training provides a path to the middle class on par with a four-year college degree. A recent study from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, which focused on the construction sector, found that “outcomes for participants in joint labor-management (or union) apprenticeship programs rival those for college graduates.”
Stephen Herzenberg, an economist and executive director of the Keystone Research Center in Pennsylvania, says apprenticeship has been increasingly “in vogue” in the United States, in part because college education has become prohibitively expensive for many families.
Proponents often point to Germany’s education system, where trade programs are seen as equally prestigious to other educational paths, Herzenberg said.
“In Germany, there's basically a bifurcation in high school between your college track and the apprenticeship track,” he said. “And apprenticeship leads to lots of good and high status jobs in Germany.”
It’s slowly catching on here. Presidents Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Barack Obama have all supported expanding apprenticeship programs. From 2012 to 2021, the number of new apprentices in the U.S. grew by 64%, according to the Department of Labor.
Major new federal investments in infrastructure and broadband are pushing unions to ramp up those programs in Connecticut and around the country. Union membership in Connecticut remains above the national average of 10.3%, though it declined in 2021 to 14.6%.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters runs Sikorsky’s pre-apprenticeships. The students pay dues as part of participating, and they’re matched with mentors who they work with side-by-side for the duration of the “Career Pathways” program.
Known as “interns” around the plant, some operate advanced machines that shape helicopter rotors and gears or work with composite materials to build the aircraft frames. Others work as electricians and mechanics on the assembly line, installing miles of wire and other components, and spending a few days on each aircraft. Shifts start at 6:00 a.m., and students earn $25 an hour for the duration of the eight-week program.
There’s a “family night” and an offsite “labor history day,” where the students learn about contract negotiating and take a class with union historian Karin Jones. At the end of the summer, the Teamsters hold a graduation ceremony.
George Mitchell, Sikorsky’s VP of operations, said the presence of so many inexperienced workers — and the investment of time by their mentors — hasn’t had a measurable impact on the plant’s productivity or costs. “For the most part, it multiplies our resources,” he said.
Shoring up defense
Major contracts with the Department of Defense are the driving force behind Connecticut’s manufacturing sector, generating thousands of jobs at the big three companies — Pratt & Whitney, General Dynamics Electric Boat and Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky — and thousands more at those companies’ suppliers. Statewide, defense spending makes up 8.2% of all economic activity.
In acknowledgement of the importance of that economic engine, state lawmakers this year passed emergency legislation providing up to $75 million in tax incentives to Sikorsky if the company wins a pair of contracts to build “future long-range assault” helicopters for the U.S. Army. The new fleet is slated to replace Sikorsky’s iconic Black Hawk helicopters and other aircraft that the Army is phasing out. If only one of the contracts is secured, the state incentive would be up to $50 million.
In exchange, Sikorsky must maintain its headquarters and primary helicopter production in Connecticut through 2042, employ a minimum of 7,000 full-time workers (roughly the same number it employs now), spend at least $300 million annually with suppliers in the state and another $70 million a year on capital expenditures.
David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said those requirements add “a layer of assurance” for Sikorsky employees and subcontractors that there will be steady work for the next 20 years.
“The first decade is the contract from the Army, and then building out the factory and the supply chain,” he said. “Then you have a much stickier economic ecosystem around these new helicopters. Really, the jobs in that second decade, I think, are where a lot of the economic benefit comes from to the state.”
It’s not easy for a high school student to picture where they’ll be in five years, let alone 20.
But as young people in the state develop skills — via work-based learning, apprenticeships, certifications and other education supported by their employers — two decades from now, many members of Connecticut's Gen Z could attain some financial stability.
Dave Tuttle, an instructor at Platt Tech who coordinates many of the school’s work-based learning programs, said there’s really only one group left to convince: parents.
“They believe, like a lot of people in our society believe … that a college degree will automatically get you anything you want. No, it won’t,” he said.
This story was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship. The Fellowship supports reporting on career and technical education. It is administered by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars and funded by the ECMC Foundation.