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Panel advances bills encouraging apprenticeships (UPDATE)

State lawmakers gave favorable recommendations on Tuesday to a trio of bills meant to draw more young people into apprenticeships and ultimately the trades.

The bills come in response to one of the most common causes of complaint in the construction industry: a persistent lack of skilled labor. The trio of bills that went before the Assembly Committee on Workforce Development on Tuesday would attack the shortage on various fronts.

Assembly Bill 745 would let high school seniors join apprenticeships as long as they could still be expected to graduate within a year and the training would not interfere with their normal studies. Assembly Bill 734 would allow both trainees and employers to deduct from their state income taxes money spent on apprenticeships certified by the Department of Workforce Development.

And Assembly Bill 124, a so-called second-start bill, would have the state Department of Workforce Development assemble informational packets laying out training and career opportunities for people who leave college without obtaining a degree. The brochures would be sent to anyone who had been enrolled in the previous semester in one of Wisconsin’s 26 public universities and two-year colleges and left without graduating.

Even though all three of the bills received favorable recommendations on Tuesday, only one of them won unanimous support. Both Democrats and Republicans on the Assembly Committee on Workforce Development came out in favor of the bill that would let seniors join apprenticeships.

But the vote split along party lines – with all five Democrats on the committee voting “no” – on the two other bills. State Rep. Jill Billings, a Democrat from La Crosse, said she voted against the proposal concerning tax deductions out of a concern that it would benefit not just individual apprentices but also corporations.

Billings acknowledged that apprenticeship training is paid for by a variety of parties, sometimes workers, sometimes unions and sometimes employers. An amendment she had put forward would have prevented corporations from being able to deduct money spent on training. That proposal was rejected.

If that change or something like it were made, Billings said she would lend her support to the bill, which then would just be about giving individual trainees some of the same benefits enjoyed by people attending college. She said there should be “some parity between students who can have tax deductions on tuition at a four-year institution and tax deductions for somebody who is paying for apprenticeship programs.”

Even as Democrats expressed opposition to some of the bills, many of their union allies have been showing support. The Mechanical Contractors Association of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Pipe Trades Association and the Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors Association of Milwaukee and Southeastern Wisconsin have all registered themselves as being in favor of the proposals. Also on board is the mostly non-union Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin.

Among unions, the most notable detractor is Local 139 of the International Union of Operating Engineers – the biggest construction labor group in the state.  Terry McGowan, president and business manager of Local 139, has said his concern with the tax-deduction bill is that it could benefit groups that charge a lot for low-quality training that rarely leads to employment.

He has said there are organizations in the state that will charge thousands of dollars for programs that claim to prepare someone to operate heavy equipment within a few weeks.

With their favorable recommendations, the bills’ next stop is the full Legislature. If passed there, the legislation will eventually go to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature.

About Dan Shaw, dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com

Dan Shaw is the associate editor at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at dan.shaw@dailyreporter.com or at 414-225-1807.

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