There is no substitute for experience, according to builders who are skeptical of letting apprentices test out of training.
“We like it right the way it is, and we’re not in favor of changing it,” said Tim Just, vice president of field operations for C.G. Schmidt Inc., Milwaukee.
But a U.S. Department of Labor rule change will let Wisconsin this year break from a 100-year tradition of forcing apprentices to spend thousands of hours in the classroom and at construction sites before graduating. According to the 2008 rule change, apprentices, by passing tests, can skip classroom and work site training.
Apprenticeship programs in Wisconsin will not be required to change their practices and adopt testing over training, but the state will give those programs the option.
Trainers in apprenticeship programs throughout the state must now decide if workers should be able to spend fewer hours in apprenticeships because they can pass a standardized test on a given skill, said Joe Weisling, training administrator for the Southeast Wisconsin Carpentry Training Center.
“The industry is evolving at a rate that knowledge is king,” he said. “Skill sets are important, but general, overall knowledge is equally important, and competence in performing tasks may or may not demonstrate overall knowledge.”
Weisling said the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has convened a group of industry representatives, including Weisling, to revise the state’s apprenticeship rules to comply with the federal regulations.
After the change, apprenticeship programs either can stick with a time-on-the-job approach that requires a minimum of 2,000 hours training, or they can opt to use tests to approve apprentices without requiring a minimum number of training hours.
Trainers also could blend the two approaches by requiring apprentices spend a minimum number of hours in training and pass skills tests.
If Wisconsin’s apprenticeship trainers choose to use testing, the tests should be strong enough to maintain the quality in the programs, said John Schmitt, business manager for Laborers Local 113 in Milwaukee. Rather than relying on national standardized tests, the state’s apprenticeship programs should create their own.
“They have great programs,” Schmitt said, “and by the time an apprentice gets through, the nice thing about it is the apprentice is skilled in all levels of construction.”
Weisling and Schmitt said graduating apprentices more quickly through testing could offer advantages when there is higher demand for skilled trades workers.
Weisling said the industry will not automatically sacrifice worker skills by changing the standard from time to testing, but the question of how to do it right will furrow some brows in the coming years.
“It is going to be an interesting dilemma,” he said, “and the best way I think I can say it is everybody is apprehensive about change.”