Those fighting for more minorities in construction apprenticeships are split over whether it will take a heavy or a helping hand to get the job done.
Paul Blackman, who last year complained to the U.S. Department of Labor about minority participation in Wisconsin construction apprenticeship programs, said he prefers a stricter approach. Blackman and the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, which oversees state apprenticeship programs, this week received a response from the U.S. Department of Labor to the complaint filed by Blackman, retired president of Steelworkers Federal Union No. 19806 in Milwaukee.
The federal agency will monitor Wisconsin’s programs, according to the response, but found minority participation rates rising and new programs in the works to build on the progress. Those programs include Web sites and publications explaining how to become apprentices and systems to help employers prevent apprentices from dropping out of the program.
“Regardless of all of these possible programs the DWD points to that are in some stage of development,” Blackman said, “the numbers stay the same.”
He said the solution is not more training programs, but stricter state oversight of joint apprenticeship committees. The committees are organized by labor and employer groups to oversee training for trades. The committees can approve apprenticeship candidates and remove apprentices from the programs, but DWD oversees the committees.
The Department of Labor discovered the affirmative-action plans, which are designed to draw more minorities into apprenticeships, were out of date for some of the joint apprenticeship committees. About 10 of the 100 plans were outdated, and they now have been revised, according to an e-mail attributed to Richard Jones, DWD agency liaison.
Blackman said instead of letting those committees revise their plans, the state should kick the committees out of the state apprenticeship program.
“If they were to decertify just one committee,” he said, “they would get everybody’s attention.”
Jones said that approach would harm apprentices.
“We are aware of the concerns phrased, but to take tough enforcement action that has been suggested and dissolve some of those committees would result in a loss of apprenticeship opportunities for a number of people,” he said, “and that strikes us as unreasonable.”
The DWD last year gave $25,000 to Milwaukee training organizations to seek ways to prevent minorities from dropping out. The department, Jones said, is considering expanding the program.
Reasons apprentices drop out of the programs vary. Some don’t want to travel for jobs, some decide they do not want to be builders, and others face discrimination on the job site, said Rhandi Berth, associate director of Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/Big Step, which trains people to become apprentices.
“There were a bunch of people that worked on the Marquette (Interchange), let’s say as operating engineers, but then they refused to travel outside of Milwaukee,” she said. “So it is a very challenging industry.”
Berth said she falls on the helping hand side. If the state wants to improve minority participation numbers, it must work with — not punish — the apprenticeship committees unless there is some flagrant violation of standards.
“From my perspective,” Berth said, “every joint apprenticeship committee I have ever met with has really wanted to solve that problem.”