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Change sought to apprentice rule

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Pennsylvania has vaulted into the top 10 among states for number of apprentices, but could the commonwealth be doing more to add apprenticeships and prepare the next generation of workers?

A Lancaster County lawmaker and some midstate contractor associations say yes, and are pushing for at least one change that they believe could lead to more construction apprentices in Pennsylvania: an adjustment to on-the-job training ratios.

The effort comes as construction companies continue to grapple with a shortage of skilled workers.

Under the state’s 1961 Apprenticeship and Training Act, Pennsylvania contractors must have four licensed journeymen overseeing each apprentice on a job site, a ratio higher than that in surrounding states. A journeyman is a worker who has completed an apprenticeship.

Union shops can negotiate a lower ratio — often one to one — but non-union contractors, or merit shops, must follow the four-to-one ratio in all bids for government work.

“The vast majority of the construction workforce is from the merit shop in Central Pennsylvania and their opportunities are handcuffed,” said Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster), who is advocating for legislation this session to level the playing field between union and non-union contractors.

Of the nearly 17,000 apprentices in Pennsylvania — a number that has grown by 27 percent under the Wolf administration — 12,666 are in the construction industry, with the majority in a union.

“This is a no-brainer,” Martin said. “This would accelerate apprenticeship even more.”

Competition and pay

Proponents of the ratio reform measure include the Keystone Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors and the Central Pennsylvania Chapter of the Independent Electrical Contractors. They argue that the 1961 law is out of date and puts smaller merit shops at a competitive disadvantage, as they are forced to hire more seasoned workers and fewer apprentices.

Union shops, meanwhile, say the higher ratio bolsters safety because more trained and experienced workers are on the job site.

“We have a ratio issue in Pennsylvania that is unrealistic, unfair and not growth-oriented,” said Barry Kindt, president of Camp Hill-based Secco Inc.

Many smaller companies can’t justify the cost of paying four higher paid journeymen to directly supervise one apprentice, said Marissa Bankert, executive director of the electrical contractors association, calling it a “conundrum” for many companies looking to grow staff and replace older workers at or near retirement.

She said the average journeyman in the electrical contractor field is making more than $25 per hour.

Her chapter received an exemption from the state’s Apprenticeship & Training Council for a three-to-one ratio, but Bankert would like to see one-to-one as she has seen growth in the number of apprentices over the last two to three years.

But union leaders said merit shops only want a lower ratio to bring down construction wages.

“There seems to be a movement to change just to have more low-wage workers on state projects,” said Frank Sirianni, president of the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council.

The prevailing wage, which is the predominant wage for construction workers in a region, is required on public construction projects costing more than $25,000.

Unions contest that ABC and IEC want lower ratios to get more lower-paid apprentices on job sites. Apprentices can be paid less than journeymen under prevailing wage laws.

But, Sirianni said, having more first-year apprentices, rather than more experienced workers, raises job safety concerns and could extend construction timelines, which could lead to higher costs.

G. David Sload, president and CEO of ABC Keystone, disagreed, arguing that the fight is about getting a ratio that is “fair and balanced across the board.”

Many of his group’s smaller member companies would like to take on more apprentices but can’t because of the ratio rule. Sload said the pipeline of young talent needs to be filled, as employers across many industries are facing a shortage of skilled labor and a low unemployment rate.

He credits the state council for approving new apprenticeship programs, which is helping to attract younger workers.

ABC also has helped push pre-apprenticeship programs as a way reach younger students about opportunities in skilled trades.

For his part, Martin said he will push hard for the ratio reform this year. However, the state senator and his supporters concede that change will not come easy. A similar bill failed to get out of legislative committee last session, and other previous attempts have not garnered much support in a union-heavy state.

Pennsylvania was fourth among states in 2017 for people in unions with 665,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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