Poor economy pinches apprentices
Published: June 4, 2009
Tags: AFL-CIO, apprentices, Badger State Inc., Eau Claire Area Plumbing Joint Apprenticeship Committee, Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board Inc., Milwaukee County Labor Council
Maxwell Thompson started working at Badger State Inc. two years ago with the expectation that he would be starting a plumbing apprenticeship by now.
But the lack of construction work means some of the Eau Claire plumbing contractor’s journeymen are on the bench, and Thompson cannot begin his apprenticeship until things turn around. Until then, Thompson, who turns 22 on June 14, will continue his pre-apprenticeship in Badger State’s shop and will continue renting a room from family members.
“I can’t wait until the economy gets better,” he said. “That’s the main thing, I guess. I guess it means I’ll start my apprenticeship, and I can get my life established.”
Fred Gardner, president of Badger State, said he has 35 workers employed now — including four apprentices — compared to the usual 50 workers at this time of year. Gardner, a member of the Eau Claire Area Plumbing Joint Apprenticeship Committee, said the group won’t meet in July or August because there are no apprentices starting their training.
Eau Claire had 2,400 construction jobs in April 2009, which is 22.6 percent less than the 3,100 it had in April 2008, according to a survey released this week by the Associated General Contractors of America. The percent drop ranks Eau Claire 283rd out of the 299 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, according to the AGC.
The metropolitan area including Milwaukee, Waukesha and West Allis ranked 238 on the list and has the same problem keeping apprentices employed during the tough economy. The region had 27,200 construction jobs in April 2009, which is 5,300 fewer than in April 2008.
“When you have got that many people unemployed, that means you have a lot of unionized people, and, I know, saying, ‘Where’s the work for us,’” said Sheila Cochran, secretary-treasurer and chief operating officer of the Milwaukee County Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
According to a May report from the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board Inc., Milwaukee apprenticeship councils had 2,315 active apprentices this spring, compared to 2,938 in 2008 and 3,126 in 2007.
Many apprentices who started training don’t abandon the trades to seek jobs in other industries when times are tough, Cochran said. Like journeymen who have completed their training, apprentices can seek side jobs, such as residential work, she said.
“They have a skill, and they can take that skill and they can be as creative with that skill as they can,” Cochran said. “I hired some guys off the bench to come work for me.”
Gardner said his Eau Claire company is getting more job and apprenticeship applicants lately but cannot take on new staff.
“The problem is: You’ve got guys on the bench you don’t want on the bench,” he said, “and how do you bring in somebody else?”
Thompson said he will wait out the tough economic spell by continuing to work in Badger State’s shop, adding that he’s lucky to at least have a job.
“I’ve got my foot in the door,” he said, “and it’s pretty hard to do that.”