Connecticut’s municipalities are struggling to find and keep staff due to a shortage in technical workers. A fix could be in the works.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Tom Condon to discuss his article, “CT towns, desperate to fill technical jobs, scramble for workers,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

You can read his story here.

Episode Transcript

WSHU: Hello, Tom. You say that without enough building officials and other specialists, Connecticut towns are struggling to find qualified workers, but the fix is in the works. Can you describe exactly what the problems are?

TC: Of course. The problems are this: town’s exist to provide a number of services, including building, sanitation and planning. And the people who do the services, well, there just aren’t enough of them. Not enough building officials, sometimes called building inspectors, zoning enforcement officers, wetlands enforcement officers, planners, there’s a whole array of shortages. So what happens is, the towns start poaching from each other. I noted that last year, the town of Vernon had two employees poached by other towns, so they went back and improved their salary and benefit structure and got them both back. But this goes on all the time, because there just aren’t enough people. It’s kind of a bureaucratic shell game.

WSHU: During the pandemic, we had much fewer workers, and we lost quite a bit of municipal and state workers. And the public sector has had a hard time recovering, it seems a much harder time than the private sector. Is that what we’re seeing here?

TC: There’s no question, that is one factor. There have been retirements, the pandemic, everything slowed down, that’s one factor. Also, the fact that the workforce was aging. This was particularly true on the state level. So there were a lot of retirements. But mainly they’re just not drawing enough people into these fields. I think there might be two reasons for that. One, I think people kind of assume that the government will always be there, it’ll always take care of itself, we don’t have to worry about it. Well, that turns out not to be true.

The other one is municipalities especially haven’t marketed themselves very well. I mean, these are good jobs and jobs where you can make a difference in your community, where you can make sure that the food isn’t tainted, or buildings don’t fall down, these are their important jobs. Somebody observed that they’re not really regulators, they’re problem solvers. But they’re good jobs that are mostly well paid, some of the small towns not as much, but they’re mostly well paid with very good benefits. And you know, it’s a chance to make a difference. But they haven’t gotten this message out.

Now, the state on the other hand, had a lot of retirements. They changed the pension formula in 2022 and a lot of people wanted to get out before that change. And there were a lot of older workers whose retirement time had come. But the state went aggressively into television advertising, you may have seen these ads for health care workers coming to work for the state of Connecticut. Well, those are very effective. They also had job fairs. But most towns don’t have the resources to do that. Most towns can’t afford television advertising. So you know, they rely on internet websites and the like, but that doesn’t necessarily reach people who aren’t already in the fields. So that’s been a challenge for towns.

WSHU: You mentioned the fact that towns do have good benefits, and that traditionally has been the draw to a lot of these jobs. Are they improving their benefits with increasing salaries?

TC: Both of the above. You’re starting to see towns such as Vernon start to reexamine their salary and benefit structure. One of the things Vernon did, and a number of other towns have done this, is adopt the four-day workweek. And this is very attractive and residents don’t seem to mind it, it seems to work for everyone. The city of Norwich recently hired a building inspector and I read the online ad for it and the salary offered was $120,000 to $130,000. You know, you can support a family on that. Look, sometimes they don’t pay that well, obviously, but when there’s a shortage, sometimes the salaries do go up. But that’s what towns are doing.

WSHU: Also, as you mentioned here, they’re trying to invest in their workers, actually taking people with limited experience and offering them training as they take the jobs.

TC: You asked earlier, you know, what are the fixes that are coming in? Well, you answered your own question. There is a movement afoot to bring in people as the private sector does with little experience, and then train them. Now there are two ways to do this. They aren’t mutually exclusive. One is through college courses. And the other is as an apprentice. In other words, you become an apprentice building official, the benefit to that of the apprentices is that you get paid while you learn. So then it can be some kind of hybrid where you take, you know, two years of college and then become an apprentice. And then as you pass the various exams you become a career building official.

But I mean, right now, the state puts a high value on experience. So to become a building official under state law, you need five years of experience in the construction business. So what you see is a lot of building officials used to be contractors, which is reasonable, but this isn’t a steady pipeline into the business, especially when construction is going good. So the idea of having a kind of a fixed pipeline that can bring people in, make no mistake, this is a highly technical area, you got to know what you’re doing. You know, train them, hybrid college or full apprenticeship, whatever works to just increase the number of people in the fields. This also true for assessors, for zoning officials, wetlands officials, planners, economic development agents, the whole panoply of urban services.

WSHU: And you say the municipal unions are actively involved in this?

TC: Oh, absolutely. They are indeed. Unions are at the table. You can’t have a union if you don’t have workers. So pretty much everybody’s at the table, UConn, some other colleges, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities which represents most of the towns in the state, the Capitol Region Council of Governments, they’re all very active in this. So a lot of players here. There’s a lot of people in the boat, and they all seem to be rowing in the same direction.

WSHU: Basically what we have here, there is a problem, but there’s some fixes in the works. And so we might be able to solve this.

TC: I hope so. And I think so, because the very state Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Michelle Gilman is very active and very passionate about it and wants to get an apprenticeship or hybrid apprenticeship program set up so that towns can use it. Everybody’s trying to do the same thing. They hope to have a pilot program ready in 2024. So we will keep an eye on that.

Long Story Short takes you behind the scenes at the home of public policy journalism in Connecticut. Each week WSHU’s Ebong Udoma joins us to rundown the Sunday Feature with our reporters. We also present specials on CT Mirror’s big investigative pieces.