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The golden ratio: Is the ratio rule for apprentices perpetuating workforce shortage?

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As baby boomers retire and millennials dismiss the construction field, contractors and lobbyists are blaming state laws for restricting their ability to meet impending workforce shortages.

“We are in an industry that, to be quite honest, is in dire need of workers,” said David Sload, president and CEO the Keystone Chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors. “We’re an aging workforce. If you look at over the next 2, 4, 6, 10 years and what we’re going to lose in our industry, we don’t have enough workers trained to fill the current roles that are needed, let alone what’s going to happen as this industry continues to grow. ”

One of the major hindrances to training new workers, said Sload, is Pennsylvania’s apprenticeship ratios. Under the state’s 1961 Apprenticeship and Training Act, contractors working in the state must maintain four licensed journeyman on any job site for every individual apprentice.

While unions can negotiate a lower ratio in collective bargaining agreements, the vast majority of Pennsylvania contractors operating without union representation must abide by the rule in all bids for government work.

Four supervisors

While proponents for the rule claim the higher rate of journeyman ensures job safety, those advocating for reform accuse union shops of protecting an archaic law in the interest of hurting open shops.

“We have to have four journeyman supervising one apprentice,” says Jeff Georg, president of York-based ASCOM Electric. “So I ask you, how practical is that? If you’re a young person who just graduated high school and we take you on as an apprentice, you have four supervisors looking over your work. It’s just not even feasible to have four people directly supervising an apprentice’s work.”

Exemptions to the rule can be sought by independent contractors through applying to the state’s Apprenticeship & Training Council. But, according to council co-chair and president of Camp Hill-based construction firm Secco Inc. Barry Kindt, union forces from the state’s urban centers are using the ratio rule to keep their own costs down while forcing non-union contractors to hire more workers and fewer apprentices — thereby putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

“They keep blocking anything to do with changing the apprenticeship ratios while, at the same time, they don’t have to abide by the rule,” said Kindt. “Our surrounding states have lower ratios, but we have to follow our ratios. The other contractors can come from as far away as Colorado, so we have absolutely no chance of doing federal work in Pennsylvania if we abide by our ratios.”

“It makes the playing field very uneven for us,” said Georg, “and it’s been this way for years and years. It’s more than disconcerting.”

Pennsylvania is one of 25 states to enforce their own ratios over the one-to-one ratio offered by the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training (an office within the federal Department of Labor), which governs the ratios of the other 25 states. A bill introduced into the state House by Rep. Craig Staats (R-Bucks) would lower the state’s ratio to match the federal one-to-one standard.

A lot of education

Mike Schurr, co-chair of the state’s Apprenticeship & Training Council, rejects Kindt’s suggestion that the ratios in Pennsylvania are tipping the competitive scales either way.

“I’m a 31-year member of DC-21, the International Union of Painters,” said Schurr, “and we have 4,000, 4,300 members on our council, and last count was 280 apprentices. So that’s more than a 10-to-1 ratio. So the advantage unions were given through the way the laws were written, they certainly aren’t using that advantage.”

Schurr and other advocates of the four-to-one ratio see the fight for reform as having less to do with workforce development and everything to do with competition for state projects.

Executive Vice President of the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors National Association of Pennsylvania John Wanner explains. “If you are in the construction business and you want to bid on public works projects, it triggers Pennsylvania’s prevailing wage law,” said Wanner, “and that law sets up minimum wages that have to be paid. If you want to bid on this project with apprentices, you can pay apprentices a lower rate.”

According to Wanner, groups like ABC and IEC want to enforce a one-to-one ratio so they can stock their worksites with more apprentices instead of licensed journeyman who must be paid the prevailing wage rate based on local collective bargaining agreements. The laws governing prevailing wage work allow for apprentices to be paid less than journeyman, said Wanner.

“I view it — and others view it — as a race to the bottom for lower wages,” said Jon O’Brien, executive director of the Keystone Contractors Association. “A lot of people who want the one-to-one would rather pay apprentices than journeyman.”

According to O’Brien, lowering the ratio could also raise safety concerns. “There’s a lot of education that goes into it, a lot of mentoring that goes into it. When you’re trying to be productive and educate an apprentice, you can kind of lose focus.”

“I don’t disagree with the open-shop guys about the need for more apprentices,” said Wanner. “But you don’t want to do it to give somebody a competitive advantage or do it in such a way that safety would be compromised.”

Council co-chair Kindt sees the matter differently. “We have proven time and again that safety is as good or better with a one-to-one ratio versus more than one,” said Kindt “In this world, if more than one person is responsible, no one is responsible.” 

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