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Inspiring young people to join the trades

NORTH CANAAN — As baby boomers enter the twilight of their careers, Litchfield County faces a looming labor shortage in its construction and manufacturing sectors.

Quarterly workforce indicators from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that in the fourth quarter of 2022,  more than one-third of workers in these sectors were over the age of 55.

As the Northwest Corner’s carpenters, plumbers, electricians, metal workers, mechanics, and other blue-collar professionals head into retirement, others in the area have begun to take action to fill the inevitable void.

Brian Ohler, candidate for first selectman in North Canaan and former state representative,  sees the dilemma as an opportunity to retain one of the region’s increasingly scarce resources: young people.

“Unfortunately, for the past thirty years our local teenagers and young adults have been urged to move as far away from North Canaan and the Northwest Corner as possible,” he remarked. “That put us in the position we are in now.”

With property prices out of reach for many young adults, Ohler sees trade professions as a potential solution to keeping adolescents in the area after high school.

“There’s no shame in staying in the Northwest Corner. With the trade jobs that are available now…you can make, depending on how hard you work, 70 to 100 grand easily. And that’s in your early 20s,” he said.

Ohler outlined his goals to train the region’s youth in hopes of inspiring the next generation of trade workers.

“We need to change the culture and erase the stigma,” he said. “It’s not wrong to be an electrician. To be an automotive mechanic. Those aren’t second class professions.”

Ohler envisioned a facility in North Canaan that would offer professional training and guidance to those interested in learning a trade. He has begun this effort by speaking with industry professionals to form a “trade collective” and create a school-based awareness program.

He said he is “working with the local elementary school in order to have reoccurring days where a particular trade can come into the school and demonstrate their skills and perhaps even have the 7th and 8th graders get some hands-on exposure.”

Eventually, he hopes to pair licensed professionals with apprentices to replenish the workforce and keep young adults in the Northwest Corner for years to come.

“What I’m envisioning is structured programs where they can obtain a license in the end,” he said. “North Canaan can be, and will be, a home for this type of opportunity.”

In Kent, Touch a Trade has spent the last few years working to solve the same problem. Founding partner and career carpenter Mason Lord discussed the lack of contractors in the Northwest Corner and explained Touch a Trade’s response to the situation at hand.

“Especially trades like plumbing, electric, it’s hard to find help. There’s not a lot of people interested in going into the trades these days and I think that’s what Brian and we would like to change,” he said. “Our initial goal is to create a spark in young people.”

Touch a Trade hosted its inaugural event last fall in partnership with Eric Sloane Museum and Connecticut Antique Machinery Association (CAMA). The open-air fair featured interactive demonstrations from dozens of artisans to give a hands-on experience to attendees.

All with professional supervision and safety precautions, guests climbed trees with an arborist, worked with power and hand tools, learned modern and historical techniques, and even competed in a 12-foot wood beam slalom course.

Touch a Trade will return this year with its second annual fair this fall, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 21, at the Sloane-CAMA complex in Kent. Lord said this year will be “as good as last year, maybe 10% better.”

“We’ll have carpentry, plumbing, electric, tile, contractors, drywall, hand tools, we had an arborist last year, we’ll have an arborist this year. That was probably to most popular, climb the tree,” he said.

Eric Sloane Museum and CAMA will host coinciding events on Oct. 21 to highlight historical craftsmanship and artisans from the past.

Building on the success of last year, Touch a Trade has set additional goals to replenish the workforce. Among these is a push to include neurodiverse people in the solution.

He said hands-on work comes naturally to many visual learners and could offer employment opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum or those with ADHD and dyslexia.

“For visual learners, especially in the trades because so much of it is visual, they can really succeed,” he said.

He recalled spending time with a teenager at one of Touch a Trade’s pop-up events this summer while working with a hand plane.

“The first time she made the pass, basically she just skidded across the board and did nothing. I showed her how to do the next one, she got a little bit of a shaving. By the fourth time, she went the whole board and did a shaving, and you should have seen the look on her face. She wanted to take the shaving with her.”

Through individual experiences like this, it is Touch a Trade’s hope that the next generation sees blue collar professions in a different light.

“There needs to be a real reshuffling of how people look at the trades,” said Lord.

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