'People don't want to be poor:' Bill touts apprenticeships as a key pathway to good-paying jobs

Photo of Rob Ryser

BROOKFIELD - Billy Vasaturo grew up in his father’s glass shop on Federal Road. But when the young man decided he wanted to get into the family business, there were no short cuts. Vasaturo started on the ground floor, as an apprentice.

“I’m different than the average employee because I’m the owner’s son, but I get treated the same as anybody else,” said Vasaturo, 32, who has completed his 6,000 hours of training as a glass installer and only needs to pass the state test to be a certified glazier. “I learn new stuff every day.”

Across Connecticut, Vasaturo’s story is retold thousands of times in automotive garages, machine tool factories and scores of other trades where the path to good-paying jobs is not college but the “earn as you learn” apprenticeship track that was launched in 1937, when the nation was in the grips of the Great Recession.

As Connecticut and the nation try to climb out of the worst economic crisis since that time, lawmakers want to see more stories like Vasaturo’s.

A $3.5 billion bill that would expand apprenticeships to more job seekers in more fields passed the House of Representatives earlier this month, with the hope of giving workers displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic a practical and proven track to full-time work through on-the-job training.

“When this bill came before my committee, I advocated for it because college is not the pathway for everyone,” said U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, a second-term Democrat who represents greater Danbury, and sits on the House Education and Labor Committee. “With this pandemic and so many people filing for unemployment (the Biden) administration has already said it has a commitment to address the work force and find creative ways to retrain people.”

The bill would bring $2 million to Connecticut’s Office of Apprenticeship Training to build new partnerships with unions, trades schools and companies, to reach traditionally underserved job-seekers, and to make sure there are more success stories like Stewart’s Barbershop in Bethel.

As barbershop owner Everton Stewart tells the story, a woman who was in-between careers walked into his shop with her apprenticeship paperwork already researched, and asked to be his apprentice.

“She had all of her classroom hours already, because she had taken some theory courses in beauty school, so all she needed was her barbershop hours,” said Stewart, 41, a barber for 15 years. “So I was able to help her.”

After a year-and-a-half - and 2,000 barbershop hours under her belt - the woman was not only a state certified barber, but she had a job in Stewart’s shop.

The National Apprenticeship Act of 2021 comes at a dire time for the Connecticut economy where the 8 percent unemployment rate is down from a high of 10 percent in the summer but is still above the national jobless rate of 6.7 percent.

Connecticut’s labor czar welcomed the bill and its potential to boost the state apprenticeship program, which he called ‘a vital part of workforce preparedness.”

“While many people think of this program as one for young people who have vo-tech education, it is also instrumental for men and women who are switching careers, so it builds a strong employment pool for the trades and other craftspeople,” said Kurt Westby, the state’s labor commissioner.

Thomas McSherry, president of Fire Control Service in New Milford, agrees.

“There are very few people out there with the right experience, and the fire suppression license is difficult, so generally we get younger guys from an auto dealership or a landscaping business and we basically start them from scratch,” said McSherry, who starts apprentices between $15 and $17 per hour.

After 6,000 hours of job training, which takes three years, fire suppression system technicians who pass the state test start earning $25 per hour. “Everybody wants to go to college, which is great, but there is real potential for these guys - no question about it - because there is a limited number of people with licenses out there.”

Removing barriers

The hope is not only to help job seekers who may be considering a change of careers as the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its one-year anniversary in greater Danbury, but also to reach more women and traditionally underserved job seekers in communities of color, Hayes said.

“People don’t want to be poor. People don’t want to be unemployed,” said Hayes. “If we create opportunities and invest in people to help them become self-sufficient, people will contribute to the community. People will buy home. But we have to remove the barriers.”

It’s too soon to say whether the Apprenticeship Act of 2021 will pass the Senate, although Hayes and other lawmakers say they are optimistic.

“We passed this legislation in November, but unfortunately the Republican Senate majority failed to take it up,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, in a statement after the House passed the act on Feb. 5. “Now, with a new Democratic Senate majority, I am hopeful that this important legislation will receive the consideration it is due, and I am confident that, if sent to the President’s desk, it will be signed into law.”

Across Connecticut, there are 5,900 active apprenticeships in industries ranging from automotive and culinary to construction and plastics, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Compare that to 280,000 active apprenticeships across the country - an increase of 40 percent since 2016.

Some 94 percent of people who complete a registered apprenticeship find full time jobs, with an annual average income of $70,000, the labor department says.

Those statistics are backed up by Bart Ogden, president of Ogden Electrical Service in Danbury, and by Tino Punturiero, the owner of Samanna Plumbing & Heating in New Fairfield, who praise the work ethic of their apprentices and said they had jobs waiting for them once they passed the state test.

Bruce Ratcliff Jr., president of AC 2000 in Southbury, said the apprentice program is not only practical but versatile.

Ratcliff, who has four apprentices working toward their 8,000 hours to certify as heating and cooling mechanics, said the program creates a path to good-paying full-time work for students right out of technical school, and for people in mid-career looking for skilled work.

“One time I had an apprentice in his mid-30s with a family, so I brought him in at a higher (hourly wage) level because I knew his work ethic,” Ratcliff said.

Members of Connecticut’s Congressional delegation such as U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney said one way the state can offer the “earn as you learn” model to more people is to create apprenticeships in new business sectors such as health care, technology and finance.

State Sen. Julie Kushner agrees.

“We need an expansion of our understanding of apprenticeships into fields that haven’t had apprenticeships, such as paraeducators in the schools,” said Kushner, a Democrat who co-chairs the state legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee. “Right now, a lot of people are working on low wages and we want them to have a pathway to better jobs and better benefits.”

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342