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This ‘one weird trick’ for combating labor shortage

The good news is the bad news.  Wisconsin’s not-seasonally-adjusted construction-unemployment rate was the lowest on record for the state in November, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Wisconsin rate of 5.7 percent outperformed the previous record of 6.2 percent, set in November 2000, and was down by 1.1 percentage points from the figure for November 2016. This is great news for both construction employers and construction employees who have more work than they can handle.

However, this is not necessarily great news for the construction industry, whose biggest difficulty is and will continue to be finding skilled workers. This cause for concern is only going to get worse thanks to the $10 billion plant Foxconn if building in Racine County, a project that could demand the labor of as many as 10,000 construction workers for five years.



Wisconsin’s construction apprenticeship programs do an exceptional job of training some of the most safe and most skilled workers in the country. However, it takes between 4 and 6 years for an apprentice to complete the necessary training.

One obvious need then is to get more people into training as quickly as possible, so there will be more skilled workers coming out of the apprenticeship pipeline. A bill now before Wisconsin lawmakers – Assembly Bill 508 – would go a long way toward doing just that. Currently, ABC 508 has passed the Wisconsin Assembly and is waiting for a vote by the state Senate, so it can move to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law.

Construction employers cannot hire as many apprentices as they want to train because of current Department of Workforce Development rules that are equal parts prohibitive and convoluted.  For example, if you want one painter apprentice, you now need one skilled worker to provide oversight.  But if you want to bring on four painting apprentices, the requirement is suddenly to have 12 skilled workers.  For laborers, it’s two skilled workers for every one apprentice until you get to 10 apprentices, at which point it jumps to 22 skilled workers. Thereafter, you’ll need five more skilled workers for each additional apprentice.

Wisconsin is behind other states.  Iowa, Utah, North Dakota, Colorado, and Nebraska have 1-1 ratios.  The federal government routinely approves 1-1 ratios for its apprenticeship programs.  Michigan just passed a law that allows 3 electrical apprentices to serve under 1 skilled worker.

I wish there were a “one weird trick,” as you see often see advertised in click bait on the Internet, that would get Wisconsin’s construction industry out of its current fix. Unfortunately, the labor shortage does not have one symptom or one solution. But AB 508 would help get more skilled workers to get into the building trades without costing taxpayers any more money or endangering safety.

John Schulze is director of legal and government affairs at the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.

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