By Matthew Broderick
For more than twenty years, Bryan MacKenzie has been providing students with work-based learning opportunities. These days, however, the pre-apprenticeships that his company provides to HVAC students from the state’s technical high schools feel more like a necessity than a nice-to-have. Last summer, MacKenzie – who co-founded Guildford-based R & B Refrigeration in 1984 – said a shortage of licensed professionals forced him to turn business away. “It was extremely difficult, but if we don’t have the [talent], we can’t go out on the job,” he said.
That’s a reality that MacKenzie and other skilled trade-related businesses statewide are confronting more frequently amid an aging workforce of technicians and a skills gap among the next generation needed to meet growing demand. Nearly ninety percent of contractors struggle to find craft workers and sixty-one percent of firms reported delays due to worker shortages according to a 2021 survey from the Associated General Contractors of America.
That’s a challenge that the Connecticut Heating & Cooling Contractors Association (CHCC) is trying to address through a new liaison program in partnership with the state’s technical high school system. The program, launched in August, offers job shadowing and work-based learning opportunities for Connecticut’s tech ed students. The organization is working with the eleven tech schools in the state that offer HVAC programming.
Joseph Pellecchia, former Plumbing & Heating Department head at Milford-based Platt Technical High School and chair of CHCC’s education committee, says work-based learning is an important component of the technical high school experience to help students build connections to employers and provide hands-on learning. “It’s important to get [industry] connections [for students] made early,” Pellecchia said. That’s because, according to Pellecchia, students who gain work-based experience during high school gain hours towards their licensing and are more likely to pursue trade-based careers. CHCCA also provides a competitive scholarship to assist high schools juniors purchase tools for HVAC pre-apprenticeships.
Lack of awareness and connections is creating headwinds for skilled trades according to national survey data from New Britain-based Stanley Black & Decker, which found that less than one-third of youth (29%) felt well-informed about how to start on a path to trade-based careers. The survey also found that while 85 percent of young people and 94 percent of parents consider skilled trades good career opportunities, less than half of youth (49%) have ever considered a skilled trade career and only 16 percent are very likely to pursue one.
Connecticut technical high schools
However, in Connecticut, technical education enrollment and participation in work-based learning through at the state’s seventeen technical high schools has been steadily climbing over the past few year, according to Patty King, District Administrator for Connecticut’s Technical High School System. From 2020 to 2022, the number of tech students engaged in on-the-job training more than doubled from 517 to 1,088, district numbers show. With nearly 1,200 students engaging in work-based learning through February of this year, the upward trend continues. Most technical high schools cap each career program at a maximum of eighteen students.
Part of the attraction is economics. “Typically, work-based learning students earn $15 to $20 an hour,” King says. Compared to the rising cost of college – which has seen in-state tuition and fees at public national universities alone increase by 175 percent over the past twenty years – technical education and skilled trades are creating less debt and positive ROI. In fact, Stanley Black & Decker research found that after five years, a graduate of a trade school who starts working will be $140,000 ahead, on average, compared to a student who enrolls in a four-year college before working. Federal data also shows that high school students who complete at least two course credits in a career pathway have a roughly 95 percent graduation rate, nearly ten percent higher than the national average.
To serve as pre-apprentices, King says, students must be sixteen or older, in their junior or senior year, meet certain grade and attendance levels, have teacher recommendations and, for some trades, transportation. They must also register with the state Department of Labor. Overall, the state’s technical schools offer work-based learning – or pre-apprenticeships – in more than two dozen fields, including HVAC, electrical, automated manufacturing, culinary arts and hairdressing and cosmetology.
Pat Ciarleglio, Apprenticeship Education Consultant for Connecticut Technical High Schools, says work-based learning also helps students earn training hours towards their Department of Consumer Protection-requirements to become licenses. “Skills trade students can [gain] up to 1,500 hours of the 8,000 on the job training hours required while still in high school,” Ciarleglio said. Some skilled trade licenses – like HVAC – require up to four years of training.
As part of this role, Ciarleglio works with advisory councils – including organizations like CHCCA — to develop curriculum, understand industry needs and keep training equipment current. For many skilled trades that means increasingly working with cutting-edge technology; with 89% of skilled tradespeople reporting they work with innovative technology and 94 percent saying their jobs are in demand, Stanley
Black & Decker findings show.
As federal dollars for infrastructure projects, the need to improve air quality in schools as the pandemic recedes and focus on energy efficiency increases, demand for skilled workers has only risen. That’s created not only a short-term need for licensed journeyman, but also a longer pipeline of youth educated about trades prior to high school.
Jenn Jennings, Executive Director of CHCC, says her membership organization – comprised of more than 180 HVAC businesses across Connecticut – wants to do more to educate current and prospective students about HVAC and other trade-related careers. “Our association wants to play an active role in exposing youth to quality, in-demand training and jobs that are critical to the state’s future and don’t require a college degree,” she said. As part of CHCC’s tech school collaboration, she say, the organization participates in career fairs and invites youth to trade shows.
Bryan MacKenzie, a member of CHCC, hopes more trade-based companies like his get involved in providing work-based learning. He has seen firsthand the success that his pre-apprentices have had as their careers have grown. He points to one of his journeyman HVAC technician – a former pre-apprentice and tech school student – who, at age 25, just purchased his first house. “With the cost of college, many kids come out tens of thousands of dollars in debt and make half of what an HVAC technician will earn.”