In Bethel: Sen. Hwang talks apprenticeships at Blackstone Industries

August 24, 2023

More CT employers embrace apprenticeships to tackle labor shortages

Hartford Business Journal

After years of steady growth, Bethel-based Blackstone Industries now has 80 employees with room to add a few more.

But the state’s persistent labor shortage, particularly in manufacturing, could make it difficult for the blade and power toolmaking manufacturer to find the right talent.
“On the production level, hiring is difficult,” said Richard C. Milici, president and CEO of Blackstone Industries. “Years ago, we’d post a job and have 50 applicants on day two. But that’s really slowed down.”
Blackstone Industries, which is made up of five separate brands that make rotary power tools, wood carving blades, dental instruments and other items across several industries, has used many state hiring and training programs in the past.

That includes the incumbent worker training program, which provides grants to companies that want to upskill their employees, and the equipment voucher program through the Manufacturing Innovation Fund, which assists companies in buying new technology.

One it hasn’t tried, but is now considering, is the state’s registered apprenticeship program.

State officials — including state Sen. Tony Hwang, Connecticut Chief Manufacturing Officer Paul Lavoie, and state Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Alexandra Daum — in July visited Blackstone’s 40,000-square-foot headquarters to promote apprenticeships as a way to combat the labor shortage.

The apprenticeship program has seen more use in recent years, but business advocates say it could see wider adoption with some legislative tweaks.

“The apprenticeship program is something we have talked about internally but haven’t used it yet,” Milici said. “We do have a lot of use for it though — we have a machine shop, and tool-and-die makers are difficult to find.”

State program

The program requires employers to work with the labor department to identify a needed job, establish a curriculum, and then launch the registered apprenticeship.

“A lot of our member companies, especially within manufacturing, have really started to utilize this program a lot more,” said Ashley Zane, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.

Lavoie, the state’s manufacturing czar, said Connecticut has placed a lot of attention and investment in job training because of how hard positions like toolmakers are to fill. By creating an employment pipeline through apprenticeships, businesses can grow their skilled labor base while also training their employees of the future.

Workers get to earn money while learning a new trade. Apprenticeships are particularly important as manufacturers and other industries contend with a graying employee base.

“It’s another way to develop a workforce,” Lavoie said.

While manufacturing has been a focus in the past several years due to the longer-term worker shortage in that industry, the state Department of Labor has helped set up apprenticeship programs in other sectors, including for healthcare agencies, insurers, hairdressers, and just about everything in-between, said Todd Berch, DOL’s registered apprenticeship director.

“Pretty much any occupation can be an apprenticeable occupation,” Berch said. “Apprenticeships have always been looked at as just for blue-collar jobs — it’s an employer utilizing registered apprenticeships as a workforce development strategy.”

Through the state’s apprenticeship training program, companies can receive up to a $7,500 wage reimbursement tax credit annually, per apprentice.

In 2022, Zane said the legislature expanded the tax credit to include small- to medium-sized businesses that operate as S corps, partnerships and limited liability companies, in addition to corporations. 

Several smaller companies have taken advantage of the program, including Cheshire-based Marion Manufacturing.