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Legislators have prime opportunity to combat labor shortage

John Mielke

John Mielke

Americans are ready to rebuild our neglected infrastructure – schools, highways, bridges, dams, public transit – but we also can’t neglect the biggest need ahead of us.

It’s the need to meet the country’s demand for 500,000 more skilled construction workers – a number that could double if the promise of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal in Washington becomes a reality. Meanwhile in Wisconsin, our construction unemployment is at record lows and the scarcity of skilled workers will only get worse, thanks to the development of Foxconn, a project which could require more than 10,000 workers for five years.

February is Career and Technical Education Month, and it comes at the perfect time to celebrate the students, apprentices, teachers, technical colleges and industry partners who are helping to prepare the American workforce for careers in construction. Unfortunately, we’ve neglected CTE over the years and now we’re beginning to pay for it, quite literally.

Here in Wisconsin, the Associated Builders and Contractors has more than 1,300 apprentices in 12 trades at ten technical colleges. We are constantly advocating for the return of CTE in high schools to help prepare more students for high-paying careers in the trades. The new Wisconsin Technical College System Completion Report for 2015-16 Apprenticeship Graduates shows the median annual salary for these new graduates is more than $71,600. That’s a number that is sure to attract more candidates to the skilled trades. But will we be able to train them fast enough?

Policymakers at all levels of government should help by encouraging the expansion of the trades’ workforce of the future. In Wisconsin, there’s a legislative initiative that could put a dent in the shortage of skilled construction workers by providing more access to apprenticeships. It’s Assembly Bill 508, commonly called the “Apprenticeship Ratio Legislation.” Its basic goal is to allow more apprentices to enter the field by removing unnecessary restrictions.

Completing an apprenticeship takes between four and six years. Construction employers cannot hire as many apprentices as they want or need to train because of current Department of Workforce Development rules that are equal parts prohibitive and convoluted. For example, if you want one painter apprentice, you need one skilled worker to oversee that person.

But, if you want to bring on four painting apprentices, you need 12 skilled workers to oversee them.  The Laborer Apprenticeship requires two skilled workers for every one apprentice until you get to ten apprentices, at which point it jumps to 22 skilled workers and then five more skilled workers for each additional apprentice thereafter.

It’s imperative to get more recruits into training as quickly as possible. However, Wisconsin is behind other states in this regard. Iowa, Utah, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska have safely adopted one-to-one ratios. The federal government routinely approves one-to-one ratios for its apprenticeship programs. Michigan just passed a law that allows three electrical apprentices to serve under one skilled worker.

AB 508 has passed the Wisconsin Assembly and is waiting for action from the state Senate action so it can move to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. There is not one magic solution to ending the labor shortage in industries like construction, but AB 508 is a common-sense measure to expand CTE opportunities for anyone who wants to train for these high-paying careers.

John Mielke is president of the Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin.

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