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Industry seeks journeymen, apprentice balance

By Paul Snyder

Contractors working on state projects should have a choice between hiring apprentices and journeymen, according to construction groups asking the state to ease its employment rules.

We want to see apprenticeship standards used as encouragement; not a hammer,” said Jim Boullion, government affairs director for the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin.

The AGC, he said, is working with contractors and the state Department of Workforce Development to make sure those standards donít cost experienced laborers work.

Gov. Jim Doyle in 2005 signed an executive order setting apprenticeship standards requiring apprentices represent a certain percentage of the work force or hours on a state job. The requirements range from 5 percent on Wisconsin Department of Transportation jobs to 10 percent on Wisconsin Department of Administration jobs.

But contractors do not want to be forced to let go of experienced workers to meet state requirements, particularly when the industry is struggling to find work for everyone, said John Mielke, vice president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin Inc.

The DWD is making changes to the apprenticeship standards, Mielke said. Companies now can request apprenticeship waivers from the DWD if a business is minority-owned or women-owned or if fulfilling the requirement would place an economic burden on the company, he said.

DWD already had some conditions for waivers in place, including if work was done during an economic depression, Boullion said. AGC now wants to see if more waiver options leads to more state waivers, he said.

DWD representatives were unable to immediately provide statistics of how many waiver requests the agency received and granted in the past year.

But the concerns of construction groups might be unfounded, said Pete Stern, apprenticeship coordinator for Iron Workers Local 383 in Madison. He said nobody in labor or management has told him about laying off journeymen to meet apprenticeship requirements. Stern said he thinks the threshold for apprentices on state work is manageable for contractors.

“When companies get work, they need staff,” he said. “Even if you’re talking 10 percent, that’s one in 10 guys. I’d be surprised if it’s that difficult an obligation to fulfill.”

There are more than 1,000 Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council members benched in Wisconsin, and about 50 apprentices have been laid off, said John Schmitt, council president and business manager. Unions are scrapping to find work for both groups.

“We want to do what’s good for journey people, and we want to do what’s good for apprentices,” he said. “But the fact is there is not much work out there, and until there is, I don’t have the answer to solve the problem.”

Even though it’s hard to demonstrate a case of journeymen losing jobs to apprentices now, Boullion said, it is better for the industry if the state anticipates the possibility of a problem.

“For now, the DWD changes go far enough,” he said. “We just wanted to make sure the table was set for getting this resolved if the problem comes up.”

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