Remember the infamous scene in the movie “Jaws” when Roy Scheider’s character, Martin Brody, catches his first glimpse of the size of the great white shark? He shockingly utters one of the film’s best lines to the grizzled captain played by Robert Shaw: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
That scene comes to mind as we ponder the immensity of the Foxconn project in southeastern Wisconsin. There has been a lot of discussion, appropriately, on how we meet the skilled-labor requirements of a project this size, especially considering strains already placed on our labor force.
At the Foxconn incentive legislation signing I attended with many ABC members, Gov. Scott Walker called this venture, “a truly transformational step for our state.” I couldn’t agree more. The construction industry in and around Wisconsin will be asked to complete the largest single economic development project in our state’s history on an aggressive schedule and with a tightening labor market, especially for skilled labor.
At The Daily Reporter’s roundtable discussion last month, several participants examined how our industry is going to accomplish this feat. Most of us were fixated on how our industry must do everything possible to effectively train more individuals in the skilled trades.
A bill introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature by state Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, and state Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, would do just that. The measure, backed by ABC, would reduce the journey worker-to-apprenticeship ratios required by the state of Wisconsin, thereby allowing apprenticeship trainers to employ more apprentices.
Currently, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development allows for a one-to-one ratio, but only for the first apprentice. DWD requires two or more journey workers for a second apprentice in many trades, which strictly limits those contractors interested in developing more skilled workers.
This legislation would eliminate the DWD requirements and allow an across-the-board, one-to-one requirement and, therefore, allow contractors to train more individuals at any given time. The bill would also eliminate requirements that the carpentry apprenticeship last four years and the plumbing apprenticeship last five years.
Wisconsin’s ratios are much tighter than those of many states that allow for one-to-one or even two or three apprentices to one journey worker, in some cases. Last year, Michigan’s Legislature changed its ratio for electrical apprentices from one apprentice for each journey worker to three apprentices for each.
More flexibility for the ratios gives our members another means of meeting workforce needs, taking on more work and expanding their companies. It also deals with the skill gap by making the skilled trades more accessible to more individuals looking to make a career in construction.
I would not argue it’s a panacea for the Foxconn project, but it’s a good, commonsense step toward building a more robust pipeline of workers and expanding the number of skilled workers we have in our boat.