Assembly Bill 508, which would reduce the required ratio of apprentices to journeymen to one to one in all trades, passed the Assembly in November and has gone through the committee process in the Senate. However, the Spring legislative session is short, leaving a narrow opportunity for the bill to be passed.

“We’re hopeful that it will be on the January 23rd calendar,” said Kyle Koenen, a member of state Senator Chris Kapenga’s staff. Kapenga is the sponsor of the bill in the state Senate.

“With the news that construction unemployment is at an all-time low, and the need for workers is really strong with all of the projects going on, we need to get this bill done,” Koenen said.

Supporters of the bill believe that it will help reduce the skills gap in the construction industry. One of the biggest concerns in the construction business is a potential shortage of workers.

“I think anybody in the industry will agree with that,” said John Mielke, President of the trade association American Builders and Contractors in Wisconsin. “Talk to our members, that’s their number one chief concern is the lack of skilled workers. It doesn’t look like it’s going to get much better anytime soon.”

Mielke said the change in apprenticeship ratios is important to his industry in creating that workforce. “There are a number of our members that would train more apprentices if they were allowed to,” Mielke said. “We hear from those folks on a regular basis.”

Mielke explained how the current process works. “What controls the number of apprentices that you can train is the number of journeymen that you employ,” Mielke said. “And it depends on the trade. So each ratio has a different ratio of journeymen to apprentices.”

Those ratios are often arbitrary and the result of political decisions over time, not necessarily safety concerns.

“They are all over the map,” Mielke said. “They are dependent on the particular trade. Meaning trades like painting or laborer might have a higher journeyman to apprentice ratio than, say, an electrician or an operating engineer. And I’m not making a value judgment of any of those trades but at an intuitive level you kind of scratch your head and go, oh, I wonder why that is.”

Possible consideration of the bill comes at a time when the state construction industry’s unemployment rate fell to a low in November of 5.7 percent, according to non-seasonally adjusted numbers reported by the Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin. The last time construction unemployment was that low in November, typically a slower month because of weather, was in 2000. The numbers show that the industry is ready to add more people.

“We know if you were to have one journeyman to one apprentice as a floor as a training ratio, we know our members would put on more apprentices,” Mielke said.

In addition to support from Wisconsin’s construction industry, the bill has also received support from the national conservative organization Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). Grover Norquist, the president of ATR, urged Wisconsin legislators in a letter to pass the bill.

“AB 508 is a commonsense reform that would remove policy roadblocks that prevent the hiring of new apprentices and the expansion of apprenticeship opportunities in Wisconsin,” Norquist wrote.

Norquist said legislation like AB 508 is important in addressing the skills gap and putting Americans to work.

“The expansion of apprenticeship opportunities in the U.S., and the enactment of state and federal policies to permit such expansion, is crucial to closing the skills gap and providing job opportunities that will allow Americans to earn an income while learning the skills needed to compete and thrive in the 21st century,” Norquist said. “Removing misguided rules and regulations that stand in the way of apprenticeship expansion is the best place for state lawmakers to start, and that’s exactly what AB 508 would do. “

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