A Journeyman’s Journey
Wednesday, June 12, 2019
A JOURNEYMAN’S JOURNEY: Watching a good idea fade through bad public process:
Twenty years ago, then-Governor Gary Locke signed an executive order encouraging workforce development to address skilled labor shortages that were hampering the state’s economic development. The order observed that apprenticeship programs were producing less than a third of the state’s labor force requirements, and the state would continue to fall behind in coming years.
In the months following, Locke signed another executive order that created a model for the development of apprenticeship programs in public works projects statewide. Locke’s order required that construction companies that do business with the state must include in their ranks a substantial number of apprentices—an order intended to put more workers into family-wage jobs and supply more trained workers for the industry. For projects paid for with public money, an additional public goal would be achieved through this initiative.
“Without this step,” Locke warned as he signed the order, “we will simply miss the opportunity to move thousands of young people into high-skill and high-wage lifetime careers. Washington is facing a labor shortage in the construction industry,” Locke said. “Skilled workers are retiring at a rapid rate, and we’re not replacing them quickly enough.”
Twenty years on, and Whatcom County is facing a mounting shortage in its journeyman labor force, as skilled workers retire and younger workers find themselves without the required training and hours. Twenty years on, Locke’s initiative fading into memory, and Whatcom County Council is still bickering about what to do about it.
In early May, Council Chair Rud Browne introduced an ordinance that would require public funds used for construction projects do double duty by also providing apprentices with job training hours to meet the requirements necessary for the next generation of skilled trades. Later that month, the proposal got clawed back in a bitter quarrel over which council committee should hear and discuss the matter.
“Washington’s traditional sources of high-wage, low-skilled work (forests and factories) are declining due to automation and global trade,” Browne asserted in his proposed ordinance. “For there to be an increase in wages, there needs to be both an increase in the use of technology and highly skilled workers. If employers cannot find trained workers in Whatcom County, they will look to other places to locate their business facilities and create jobs.”
The proposal, which would be phased in over a number of years, would require that for construction contracts in excess of $1 million, no less than 10 percent of the labor hours would be performed by apprentices, and in a manner that would assist with their certification. Under the proposal, all contracts for such construction projects would need to provide a plan for an apprenticeship program that is approved or recognized by the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council that governs such programs.
The proposal finally came before council’s Committee of the Whole last week, where its vital premises were scissored apart by a council minority that was either opposed to the concept in principle or did not understand its essence—the industry requirements for qualified and accredited journeyman and apprentice programs are onerous.
“The critical issue here,” Browne observed, “is to make sure that apprentices have the job training and the hours necessary to graduate into journey-level certification—and that is identified as the biggest challenge in creating a skilled labor force, and the graduation rate of apprentices.
“Carpenters, an electrician, a plumber, a drywall journeyperson—they all require a combination of school and on-the-job training hours before they can get their certificate,” he said.
Dependent largely upon private funding, apprenticeship training is driven by volatile employer demand, which affects both the training content and the number of workers trained. Yet it is not uncommon for half of construction apprenticeship agreements initiated in a given year to be cancelled.
“In Washington, which, of four states studied, provided data covering the longest time period, 70 percent of construction apprentices who began their apprenticeship in 1994 [were] cancelled,” reported the Aspen Institute, which studied apprenticeships in the building trades. “This has fallen gradually. Only 54 percent of construction apprentices who began their apprenticeship in Washington in 2007 have cancelled.
“Policymakers should invest in infrastructure projects that not only address growing concern about the condition of our nation’s infrastructure, but also keep more apprentices employed and in training, ensuring that our nation has a reliable construction workforce in the decades ahead,” Aspen Institute researchers advised. “Apprenticeship utilization requirements, which guarantee that apprentices work a certain percentage of the total construction labor hours on a construction project, can help more apprentices access opportunities created by these investments and should be encouraged.”
“This will increase our costs,” Council member Tyler Byrd derided in opposition to the proposal. “The contractors who want to build on county projects will have to put 15 percent into an apprenticeship program. They will need two journeymen for every apprentice—so that’s 45 percent of their worker base.
“That will increase their costs, and it will increase our costs.”
“Education costs money,” Browne agreed. “But it is still much cheaper than ignorance. Having an unskilled workforce is damaging to our economy.
“You can’t simply say, ‘Well, the guy’s been on the job for 20 years, he’s a skilled laborer, he’s good enough,’” Browne said. “Not only can we not get an occupancy permit for non-certified work, the insurance carriers will not insure a building that was not wired by a licensed electrician.”
Their discussion will continue, but let’s hope it doesn’t take another 20 years.