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Trades divided over journeyman-to-apprentice ratios

Jeremiah Lederer thinks his business, Edgewater Plumbing in Sheboygan, will hit a big stumbling block in the next ten years: Many of his master plumbers will be retiring, and he’ll have no one to replace them.

His predicament would be easier to manage, he told lawmakers at a public hearing on Wednesday, if it weren’t for his trade’s state-mandated apprentice-to-journeyman ratio. Because of the complex set of rules governing apprenticeships in the plumbing trades, Lederer can find himself having to enlist anywhere between one and three journeymen anytime he adds an additional apprentice to a training group that already has three members.

Lederer said Wednesday that the rules have proved a real hindrance. He said he has six helper employees he’d like to move into apprenticeships next year. But he can take that step only with three of them; advancing all six would require hiring at least one more journeyman in a workforce that is already running short of skilled labor.

“I can’t do anything more,” Lederer said.  “There are no more journeyman plumbers to hire. I can’t hire any more apprentices because of this ratio.”

Lederer was among a group of tradesmen who testified at a public hearing held Wednesday on legislation that would set a strict one-to-one ratio for journeymen overseeing the apprentices entering any trade. Current law gives the state’s Department of Workforce Development discretion to increase the number of journeymen who must be overseeing a first-year apprentice. Because there is not a mandated ratio for the entire industry, the numbers vary from trade to trade.

Under the changes proposed in Senate Bill 411, the Department of Workforce Development would be prevented from requiring more than one journeyman to oversee the work of any given apprentice. The only discretion the department would retain would be to increase the number of apprentices who could be overseen by a single journeyman.

The same bill, meanwhile, would eliminate statutory requirements setting minimum lengths for carpentry and plumbing apprenticeship programs.

Sen. Chris Kapenga, a Republican from Delafield and an author of the bill, said Wednesday that his goal is to combat the labor shortage by eliminating artificial barriers to getting into the trades.

Lederer said the bill is a step in the right direction.

“It’s not about getting a cheap workforce and having a bunch of guys running around not knowing what to do,” Lederer said. “It’s about getting guys to train and replacing guys who are retiring in the next decade or so.”

Not everyone in the trades is in favor of the proposal, though. Brian Hlavin, a lawyer representing the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, told lawmakers he believes the legislation runs afoul of federal law, which requires private parties, and not a governmental body like the Legislature, to determine the proper training ratios for each industry.

“What is good for one trade may not be good for another trade,” said Hlavin.

Mark Reihl, executive director of the Wisconsin State Council of Carpenters, agreed with some of Hlavin’s concerns. He said that decisions over proper training ratios should be left to the sorts of advisory committees that now set standards for apprenticeship programs in the trades.

Reihl was also concerned about the bill’s effect on collective-bargaining agreements. He said the last paragraph of the bill suggests that the new ratio law would supersede any collective-bargaining agreement that might be reached after the bill’s effective date.

Reihl said the bill authors never bothered to ask for his opinion before introducing their proposal, even though the carpenters operate one of their largest training centers in Kapenga’s district.

“It would have been nice to contact us as long as we were right in the district,” he said. “I think this bill has some problems.”

About Erika Strebel

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for The Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

One comment

  1. This bill would drive wages down by flooding the market, what will happen when work starts to slow down? This is exactly why contractors sign contracts to be signatory contractors with unions. They have access to manpower. If they have to much work they can’t man, simply call the union hall and they can dispatch skilled workers. When they don’t have enough manpower the union then calls other locals to fill the call. This avoids flooding the market and maintaining decent wages.
    The skill of each trade would be in danger of having an apprentice train another apprentice. Keep in mind the ratio is not job specific, but shop. So, you could have a shop load up on apprentices to match this ratio, and have one Forman run a job with all the rest being apprentices on that particular job. And have the other journeyman working by themselves on other jobs.

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