The Gristle

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.

Paradise Silver Reef
Past Columns
Her Story

June 5, 2019

Do Overs

May 29, 2019

E Pluribus Unum

May 15, 2019

The Millworks

May 8, 2019

State of the County

May 1, 2019

A Change in Climate

April 24, 2019

The Raucous Caucus

April 17, 2019


April 10, 2019

Edge City

April 3, 2019

Fixing the Fix

March 27, 2019

Halfway Houses

March 20, 2019

New Directions

March 13, 2019

Fire and Ice

March 6, 2019

The Big Short

February 27, 2019

Marina Lacuna

February 20, 2019

New Bites at the Apple

February 13, 2019

Coal Folds

February 6, 2019

Refocusing the Narrative

January 29, 2019

Old Town, Old Story

January 23, 2019

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Smart Business Leadership Series

11:30am|Connections Classroom

Wellness Wednesdays

12:00pm|Riverwalk Plaza

Wednesday Farmers Market

2:00pm|Barkley Village Green

Ferndale Book Group

2:30pm|Ferndale Library

Sedro-Woolley Farmers Market

3:00pm|Hammer Heritage Square

Group Run

6:00pm|Skagit Running Company

Calypso Kitchen

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Creekside Open Mic

6:30pm|South Whatcom Library

Bellingham Mayoral Forum

6:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Brewers Cruise

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Marina Albero and Jeff Johnson

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Community Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

High Tea Fundraiser

11:00am|Willowbrook Manor

English Country Dancing

1:30pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Dig Deep

3:00pm|Deming Library

Bard on the Beach

4:00pm|Vanier Park

Blues and Brews

5:00pm|Hotel Bellwether

Blues and Brews

5:00pm|Hotel Bellwether

Van Gogh for the Youth


Ales & Sails

6:00pm|Bellingham Bay

Van Gogh for the Youth

6:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

The Song Wranglers

6:00pm|Jansen Art Center

Building a Secure Water Future

6:30pm|Mount Vernon City Library

Good Time Girls Season Kickoff Party

7:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Chuckanut Radio Hour

7:00pm|Whatcom Community College


7:00pm|YWCA Ballroom

Stepsisters, a Dance Story

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

James and the Giant Peach

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre


7:30pm|Maritime Heritage Park


7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Good, Bad, Ugly

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Trove Web Village Books
Community Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Bard on the Beach

4:00pm|Vanier Park

Stepsisters, a Dance Story

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

James and the Giant Peach

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre


7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild


7:30pm|Maritime Heritage Park

The Present Sense

8:30am|Make.Shift Art Space

Wild Things

9:30am|Marine Park

Chuckanut Writers Conference

10:00am|Whatcom Community College

Summer Bazaar Craft Sale

10:00am|Cedar Grove Park clubhouse

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Orcas Island Bicycle Tour

12:00pm|Orcas Island

Ferndale Farmers Market

2:00pm|1750 LaBounty Dr.

Peace Vigil

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Hot Sauce and Salsa Festival

5:00pm|Aslan Depot

The Double Trouble Band

5:00pm|Semiahmoo Marina

Keys for Kids

5:30pm|Stepping Stones Garden

Salmon Dinner Sail

6:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Family Story Night

6:00pm|Fairhaven Library

On Trend Dance Show

7:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Longest Day 10K

7:00pm|Fairhaven Village Green

The Dance Studio presents Rubies

7:00pm| Mount Baker Theatre

Writer's Block, PainProv

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

see our complete calendar »

Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Support Vertical Trove Web