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Some Connecticut students are choosing apprenticeships instead of college — here’s why

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Andrea Piacquadio
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College is far from the only option for Connecticut high schoolers looking to further their training. Some are opting for pre-apprenticeships or work-based learning programs — even before they finish their high school degree.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Erica Phillips to discuss her article, “More students, companies are pursuing apprenticeships in CT,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Erica, you say apprenticeship programs are gaining popularity in Connecticut as people are starting to question the value of four-year college degrees. Could you explain what's going on here?

EP: It's been a shift, sort of a slow shift. And not just in Connecticut, but nationally, more people are really thinking about not just apprenticeships but things called work-based learning, in which you're working while you're going to high school and getting credit for doing that. The thinking has been shifting that these are just equally great ways to launch your career, that the idea of the four-year college degree is not really going to work for everyone and, frankly hasn't. A lot of people don't end up finishing their degrees. But they do end up with a lot of debt. There are these other options and they're growing, to basically get into a trade and do an apprenticeship or work-based learning while you're in school, and transition into a career that way.

WSHU: You give the example of Tahjay Greene, a senior at Platt Tech in Milford. He's joining what is called "Career Pathways" program at Sikorsky. Could you tell us a little bit about "Career Pathways" and this particular student that you've studied?

EP: Sure. Actually, I talked to him and three of his colleagues in the "Career Pathways" program, all of whom were high school students at the time, two of whom have since graduated. But this program, it's not an apprenticeship, it's what's called a pre-apprenticeship, which basically is kind of work-based learning. They do get paid, they work at Sikorsky in the summer after their junior year, and the summer after their senior year. The program is eight weeks, they have to basically commit their summer to doing this. So they can't go on vacation, and they get up pretty early. The shift starts at 6:30 a.m., kind of early in the morning for high school-aged kids. But it's really competitive to get into this program. There was like a 12% acceptance rate or so this time around, and it can actually be even more difficult than that some years.

WSHU: They get paid, right?

EP: It's a job, you know, it's a job. So you are basically entering the working world during your summer, before your senior year and then doing it again, after your senior year. And most of the kids in this program do end up getting job offers at Sikorsky once they complete the program. So it's kind of one of those things like I said, it transitions you into a career, and no one's thinking about how to raise money for an expensive four-year college program. Not only is the expensive four-year college idea not really part of the equation here, they're getting paid. And a lot of times in these types of jobs where you do a pre-apprenticeship and then you go into the job, the company will actually provide some stipends or refunds if you wanted to go back to school and get a certification or a degree in something, going to school while working.

WSHU: Does the degree have to do with the job you're doing? A degree that would help you with your career with the company, or just any degree?

EP: Yeah, that varies. I think primarily in the programs that I've learned about and talk to, yeah, it's ideally a certification or an associate's or that type of degree that does pertain to what you're doing but doesn't have to be sort of exactly what you're doing. It could be something else that's helpful to the company, like marketing or human resources.

WSHU: And you get paid throughout this. So you don't end up with any debt. And you have a career.

EP: Right. So this has been kind of a big selling point that a lot of politicians and policymakers who are trying to promote these programs really hammer home on that point. It's like we hear so much about college debt, it's such a story. A lot of that debt is from people who didn't even finish the degree, because they couldn't make work. No one wants that situation. This was in the Obama administration, the Trump administration and the Biden administration, a real push, a real steady kind of refrain of, look, there are these other options for people in other countries around the world, this works really great. You get to be 18, it's not a, go to college or nothing situation. It's to go to college, or do a pre-apprenticeship program, or do a certificate program or do an associate's or go work for a company, etcetera. So there's all these other ways that you can launch a really steady, good paying career without going off to college, not knowing what you're going to do other than you're going to have thousands of dollars of debt in a few years.

WSHU: How available are these programs?

EP: Because it hasn't been adopted extremely quickly, there is kind of a lot of a steady drumbeat. But people are a little hesitant about getting super into this. Participation in these types of programs has grown substantially in the last decade or so. But there's still, like I said, some hesitancy, not a ton of availability, which means oftentimes, if you are a student, and you want to get into the work-based learning program, or an apprenticeship, there's quite a bit of competition at this time. So for example, Tahjay Greene had to do a whole application almost akin to a college application to get into the Sikorsky "Career Pathways" Program. And like I've mentioned earlier, the acceptance rate was pretty slim.

WSHU: What's the state doing? I understand the state has had some tax incentives for manufacturers to create these programs. Could you just tell us a little bit about that? What is that? And how is that helping to increase the number of slots available?

EP: Yeah, and I think whether it's helping remains to be seen, this is a relatively new thing that they've passed this year, which was a tax credit to companies who do offer apprenticeships. So this has been available to larger companies, they made it available to small businesses, in some ways in an effort to expand the availability of these types of programs for students. Small businesses across the state were really pushing for this with the Business and Industry Association, this was a big kind of pillar for them in this legislative session to say, 'if you're a small business, you take on an apprentice; you're taking on the training of this person and you're paying them, let's give them a little tax credit for doing that and helping expand the workforce among young people.' The industry needs people to enter in at this point in time. So it seems like a lot of people kind of saw this as kind of a win-win.

WSHU: Well some smaller employers have felt that they put in all this effort to train someone who ends up going off to a larger company to work after getting the training, where they probably have better pay and benefits.

EP: Right. They’re thinking if on the off chance that this person is gonna go somewhere else, well at least the investment we made in them is offset a little bit with the tax credit.

WSHU: And what is the union involvement, because especially in the Sikorsky program, there's a union component to it.

EP: That's an interesting program, because in order to be part of it, you do actually have to join the Teamsters union during your first summer in the pre-apprenticeship program. The teamsters union runs that apprenticeship program, everything goes through them. So Sikorsky is staffed by unionized Teamsters, and they run this mentorship and pre-apprenticeship training program. Unions in the construction trades and things like that, they do all the apprenticeship training as well. My understanding is you join the union, you're an apprentice, and you kind of get jobs through them. So you know, contracted jobs. And all the while you're in training, I think it's as many as four years that you're getting those hours in and working officially as an apprentice through a union. So they have high hopes to expand those programs as well. And they play a big role in training.

WSHU: So how far is this going to go to fill the skills gap that we have, especially in the defense industry in Connecticut, of skilled labor? I believe we are about 100,000 short of what the industry needs. So how is this helping out?

EP: Filling the skills gap is a large and complex question. And I think it's certainly on legislators' minds. This is a piece of it. The more people know about workplace learning and apprenticeship programs, the more people seek them out, the more businesses that know about it, and then know about the incentives might start these programs. There's a lot of knowledge that has to get out there in order to help this grow and help build the skills gap. But there's so many other pieces of it, it's one thing to do an apprenticeship program, but that's not always exactly what people need. They might need a really high-skilled engineer, there's a skills gap in, you know, high-skilled engineers, or nurses. There's huge numbers of industries where the training actually is kind of extensive, and the skills gap that's required. So this is one piece of it, but it doesn't answer all the tens of thousands of openings that are out there that need skilled workers. But I think it is critical to getting folks into the workforce for some things, some big projects that we have to do. We have a ton of federal money coming in for infrastructure projects, broadband projects, these defense contracts that Connecticut keeps getting, the need for people with skills is very high. So anyone who's participating in that training is going to go towards expanding that.

WSHU: So the bottom line is, there's a lot of opportunity for young people looking for work in Connecticut, and different ways to get there.

EP: It certainly seems so yeah. And the kinds of things that are funded by federal money, those are the kinds of jobs that when a recession comes along, don't necessarily disappear the way private jobs might. So there's a big need, there's a big opportunity. I think everyone's kind of trying to figure out the solution.

WSHU: I like a quote that you had from someone from the Department of Labor, who said "Upon graduation from college, you get a degree. Upon graduation from an apprenticeship, you get a career."

EP: Yeah, exactly. Everyone probably has their own individual stories about this. But when I graduated from college, I had no idea what I was gonna do. You have tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and you don't even really know where you're going. It's one way to get into the working world. People are realizing that's not the only way. It's nice to have options, but it's also nice sometimes to have some stability. So here's a range of options that young people are going to have available to them, and you get to decide which direction you go in.