Skilled worker shortage costing consumers

Renewable Energy
BRENTWOOD Nathan Poland of ReVision Energy has a message for young people who want to take an active role in reducing carbon emissions.

Consider a career change and come take ownership of a company working toward that goal.

Poland, electrical coordinator at ReVision Energy, said as New Hampshires unemployment rate of 2.7 percent ranks among the best in the country, the states rapidly aging population presents opportunity for people looking to join the growing renewable energy industry.

However, in order to reap the full rewards of renewable boom, he believes it may take societal shift in how people view manual labor and what role it can play in the education of students in a 21st century industrial economy. Translation: its time society gave the trades their due as an alternative to, or complement for, higher education.

Its kind of this yin and yang with education when someone graduates from high school and traditionally we want to drive that person in a certain direction, but realistically, you want to give them a choice,” Poland said. “Having the lowest unemployment in the country is an awesome number, but what it causes is a critical shortage of people in the trades. Were running into the scenario where there are more licensed electricians in the field who are in the 50- to 70-years-old range. There are more people ready to retire than are entering the field and that puts a real strain on any business owner looking to hire an electrician for a job.

To address this shortage, ReVision Energy has created its own in-house apprenticeship program to train the next generation of electricians who will install a range of systems, from home electronic vehicle charging ports, solar panels, batteries for home back-up power, and solar water heaters and heating systems. Upon acceptance into the program, apprentices are paid an hourly rate Poland said is a leading wage among apprentice electricians and are guaranteed 8,000 hours of site work and 600 hours of in-class work before taking their state journeyman electrician test for licensure.

Poland said apprentices who work at ReVision come from all types of backgrounds and levels of education. As an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) company, every ReVision employee owns a piece of the business.

Many of our apprentices hold four-year degrees in subjects like economics, environmental science; some are licensed lawyers who wanted a change in careers because its hands-on work and it pays well, Poland said. The opposite scenario is true too; some apprentices are right out of high school and theyre not sure what they want do to, so they come get a free education in the trades and get paid well for four years. Maybe they go another year to get their masters license and decide to go into business for themselves. Afterwards, they may want to go get their bachelors in business and marketing.

Polands colleague James Hasselbeck said under electrical apprenticeship regulations, there must be one licensed electrician for every two apprentices working on any specific job. He said the limited number of licensed electricians creates a bottleneck effect where only a finite number of apprentices can be hired to keep a consistent ratio with the number licensed electricians.

Were playing the long game. There is interest out there and thats really encouraging but the same interest has outstripped our ability to get more people into the field, said Hasselbeck, ReVisions director of operations. Were making a decades-long commitment.

Valerie Rochon, chief collaborator at the Chamber Collaborative of Greater Portsmouth, said in order to restock the pipeline of young people pursuing a trades-based career, industries must continue to build their partnerships with high school career technical education centers (CTEs). That way, students have an idea of what specific skills various employers desire and what types of viable careers exist without necessarily pursuing a college education directly after high school, if at all, she said.

Anytime you try to start a pipeline, it takes awhile before it becomes a pathway,” Rochon said. “So how do we connect them to our 800-member businesses, which range in size from one or two employees to hundreds? They are more interested in students who are problem-solvers with a strong work ethic. Education makes you eligible for a job, but your soft skills your critical thinking, your communications skills those are what make you desirable as an employee. The basic skills to do a given job, industry can train.

The city of Portsmouth’s Economic Development Program Manager Nancy Carmer said New Hampshire industries challenges in finding qualified workers leaves a surplus of work. In response, industries have begun to approach the state to build more apprenticeships across a spectrum of businesses.

Its depressing their ability to take on more work or produce the timely completion of work they have, Carmer said. Education is just hearing this from the business community, so the state is working to develop apprenticeships for specific industries and kids from high school can come away with certificates in manufacturing, hospitality, health care, construction and IT.

Lynn Szymanski, program manager for advanced manufacturing with the Community College System of New Hampshire, said apprenticeships developed by industry and academia are beginning to pay off.

The classroom becomes the workplace, Szymanski said. The apprentice becomes part of the company and sees the money a business invests in them. Then, retention of that person when they are brought on full-time tends to be higher.

In the interim, the bottleneck stifling those attempting to become licensed tradesmen is having a negative impact on businesses. Don Timm of Epping recently opened the boutique pastry shop Sweets by Coolwoka in Exeter with his wife Anastasia. He said he waited six weeks to receive a single call back from someone to do the plumbing work for three of his shops sinks, which delayed the opening of his business and cost him an additional $3,500.

It makes the timeline much longer because you are trying to open based on their word, Timm said. I have experience doing minor plumbing jobs around the house so I kind of know what theyre looking for. My worry is for business owners who dont have this experience and dont know what their plumbers are doing, its easy to see them getting into a vulnerable position and becoming cash-strapped more quickly while waiting for their work to get done.

Kathy Sargent is director of the Sanford Regional Technical Center at Sanford High School, which serves eight communities in southern Maine. Sargent said while the problem of a lack of young people entering the trades and other forms of manual labor is not going away overnight, she sees signs of progress. For instance, she is proud of the partnership SRTC has forged with nearby Rubb Building Systems for students in metal machining.

They worked with their employees and really helped them learn how to coach kids and it was a welcoming and mentoring environment,” she said. “Industries are forced to adapt to be able to survive in this labor shortage, so I think what Rubb Building Systems has done for our kids is a real model to follow.”

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