Commentary: Are apprenticeship ratio requirements a help or hindrance?

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As Delaware’s trades rebound from the pandemic and billions of dollars come to the state in federal infrastructure funds, it’s time for lawmakers to free businesses from the strict regulations that keep them from filling jobs, including apprenticeship ratio requirements.

Apprenticeship programs train skilled workers by combining classroom instruction with on-the-job training under experienced journeymen.

Many employers in Delaware want to hire and train new apprentices but are restrained from doing so because current regulations require multiple journeymen or full-time workers to also be hired — a cost many small businesses can’t afford.

For electricians, Delaware has an apprentice-to-journeyman ratio of 1-to-1, then 1-to-3. That means a company with one journeyman may hire one apprentice but then must hire three more journeymen before it can hire its second apprentice.

Other ratios include:

  • Sheet metal worker — 1-to-4.
  • Insulation worker — 1-to-3.
  • Structural metal worker — 1-to-4.
  • Painters, construction and maintenance — 1-to-3.
  • Asbestos worker — 1-to-3.
  • Industrial maintenance mechanic —1-to-3.
  • Plumber/pipefitter — 1-to-3.
  • Precision instrument repairer — 1-to-3.
  • Glaziers — 1-to-3.
  • Construction laborer — 1-to-3.
  • Drywall finisher —1-to-3.
  • Hard tile setter — 1-to-3.
  • Roofer — 1-to-2.
  • Sprinkler fitter — 1-to-1.
  • Child care worker — 1-to-1.
  • Elevator constructor — 1-to-1.

Most trades require three or even four journeypersons for each apprentice. These ratios cripple contractors’ ability to fill the jobs that so many Delawareans desperately need.

Associated Builders and Contractors Delaware, the trade association that represents the construction industry, has requested that the secretary of labor reduce the apprentice ratio to 1-to-2 for all trades for 24 months. Doing that, the group argued, would allow construction companies to replenish the workers that have been lost throughout the last decade.

New Jersey has 1-to-4 ratios for all trades, something Delaware’s unions and Labor Department have pointed to in response to the request to lower Delaware’s ratios.

Other states, like Montana, are taking action to support small businesses by reducing ratios.

In November 2021, Montana’s governor, Greg Gianforte, proposed reducing the apprentice to journeyman ratio to 1-to-1 across the board. He emphasized that changing the ratio would preserve workplace safety and training standards, while also making Montana more competitive with neighbors.

Industry leaders and experts praised the move, arguing it will especially benefit small businesses in rural areas where it is more difficult to recruit additional journeymen to supervise apprentices.

“For too long, unnecessary red tape has tied up employers looking to offer apprenticeship opportunities and build a more highly-skilled workforce,” Gianforte said at the time. “With this commonsense rule change, we can dramatically increase apprenticeship opportunities for hardworking Montanans to meet current and future workforce needs.”

Critics argued it would be impossible to oversee and safely train if the ratio was decreased, despite Wyoming allowing two apprentices per journeyman, North Dakota allowing three apprentices per journeyman and Idaho allowing up to four apprentices per journeyman.

In those states, builders continue to safely build houses and staff job sites, with even more flexible regulations than Gianforte’s.

Decisions like that helped Montana’s construction sector grow 12.3% between February 2020 and February 2022. Data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in March 2022 shows that 34,700 Montanans were employed in the construction sector in February, up from 30,900 in February of 2020.

In Montana and across the country, reducing ratios has proven to lower costs and enable companies to expand apprenticeship opportunities to new entrants to the trades at rates commensurate to their ability and experience.

Another reason to do it: Powerful labor unions benefit significantly from higher apprentice-to-journeyman ratios, while small businesses suffer.

Unions are comprised of many skilled workers across multiple jobsites and employers, giving them a larger pool of journeymen who can oversee an apprentice, making it easier for them to comply with apprentice-to-journeyman ratios than it is for small contractors, who would have to hire more journeymen to gain an apprentice.

This gives unions a significant advantage when competing against small businesses in a short labor market.

Additionally, when companies are hiring, workers can still enter an apprenticeship program if they are not selected by the company due to being over their ratio limit.

Those apprentices are considered “trade extension students” and are able to attend class at night like apprentices and get credit for that, but they can’t count their on-the-job training hours that they are earning during the day and are needed to complete the programs.

Those trade extension students are in the same classes as apprentices from the companies where they work, but they don’t get the same credit for their work hours during the day because they aren’t considered apprentices.

That puts them at a career-altering disadvantage compared to their apprentice counterparts, and everybody loses. This is just another example of a simple problem that could be fixed by reducing ratios.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the construction industry needs 2.5 million workers to satisfy the demand created by federal infrastructure legislation.

Prior to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Delaware’s Department of Labor identified construction as the third-fastest-growing industry throughout the next five years.

Without the infrastructure bill, the department estimated the industry would need to immediately fill 5,380 positions to meet demand. That number is significantly higher now.

One way Delaware can fill that void and maintain a competitive edge over neighboring states is by following Montana’s lead and reducing apprentice-to-journeyman ratios.

Doing so will be especially important as the state seeks contracts to complete more than $1.2 billion worth of infrastructure improvements authorized by the federal infrastructure bill.

Kathleen Rutherford is executive director of A Better Delaware, a nonpartisan public policy and political advocacy organization that supports pro-growth, pro-jobs policies and greater transparency and accountability in state government.