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March 4, 2024 Politics & Policy

Trade industries push for apprenticeship hiring ratio reform

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED State Rep. Tim Ackert (R-Coventry) speaks during a press conference urging fellow lawmakers to reform the state’s apprenticeship hiring ratio requirements.

A Republican legislator who also runs a small electrical company wants to reduce the state’s apprenticeship hiring ratio, which supporters say would help bolster Connecticut’s trade industry workforce.

However, opponents believe the change could lead to the deterioration of apprenticeship programs.

State Rep. Tim Ackert (R-Coventry) and a plethora of construction industry employers and contractors recently met at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford to advocate for a change to the state’s apprenticeship hiring ratio requirements for certain industries.

The state Department of Consumer Protection imposes a so-called “hiring ratio” on contracting companies in electrical, plumbing and metal-working trades. The rule is a bit technical, but it essentially requires contractors to have a certain number of licensed journeymen on staff for each apprentice they hire.

The rule allows contractors to hire up to three apprentices at a 1:1 ratio. That means a company must have three licensed journeymen on staff if it wants three apprentices. It would need two journeymen for two apprentices.

After the first three apprentice hires, employers must abide by a 1:3 ratio. That means for each new apprentice, a company must have three additional journeymen.

So, a company with 12 licensed journeymen can only have six apprentices on staff.

Ackert, a licensed electrical contractor who owns Coventry-based Ackert Electric LLC, said he wants the 1:3 ratio reduced to 1:1, similar to a proposal he brought up several years ago.

Advocates for the change argue the current ratio restricts licensed contractors from bringing on new hires to work in the trades, stifling workforce development at a time when Connecticut has 94,000 job openings.

The trades, in particular, have been hard hit by labor shortages.

“There are people wanting to get into trades who have already got their training started, and we can’t hire them because we have a ratio of three licensed people to train one apprentice in hiring,” Ackert said in a recent interview.

Proponents of the 1:3 ratio, including some labor unions, say it ensures less experienced and unlicensed workers are properly supervised. They also argue it prevents contractors from hiring a large number of apprentices who can serve as cheaper labor compared to more experienced workers, some of whom belong to unions.

Changing the ratio, they argue, would have an adverse effect on the integrity of Connecticut’s apprenticeship base as a whole.

“Strong licensing standards don’t just benefit union contractors and union workers, they benefit non-union employers, they benefit non-union workers, they benefit the whole industry,” said Kimberly Glassman, director of the Foundation for Fair Contracting of Connecticut, a private nonprofit that promotes and protects prevailing wage standards on federal, state and municipal public works projects.

Waiver option, red tape

Ackert — who sits on the Labor and Public Employees, Energy and Technology, and General Law committees — said reducing the ratio could lead to 500 new jobs in the state across all impacted trades.

He said he’s been looking for a committee to raise a ratio-reform bill for debate this session.

At a press conference in February, Independent Electrical Contractors of New England Executive Director Allie French spoke in favor of the change.

“We are behind the ball on replenishing the skilled labor workforce in Connecticut,” French said. “Right now, roughly 20% of our apprentices are not working in an industry that desperately needs jobs filled. It’s time to make this simple change to help our employers, employees, create jobs, and ultimately strengthen our economy.”

But Glassman, of the Foundation for Fair Contracting, said changing the ratio isn’t necessary.

She said contractors can already ask the state Department of Labor for “ratio relief,” or a waiver that allows companies to continue to hire at a 1:1 ratio, even after they’ve brought on three apprentices.

There have been talks about streamlining the waiver process to make it easier for businesses to go through, Glassman said, but outright eliminating the ratio requirement would be going overboard.

“It feels like a bit of a red herring at this point when you can already go and get more apprentices if you need to, but you have to prove to the state that you have a need, and that you have to hire more apprentices,” Glassman said.

Glassman noted that apprentices get paid less than their journeymen peers, and the pay discrepancy combined with a 1:1 ratio could result in employers hiring apprentices, and then laying them off before they achieve higher-paying journeymen status.

“If we’re going to talk about changing the ratio, what we’re talking about is allowing more contractors to hire a cheaper labor pool,” Glassman said. “Our concern is not about giving people more opportunity to enter an apprenticeship program, it’s about employers exploiting the apprenticeship program to keep paying them substandard wages.”

Despite the waiver option, contractors say the red tape is stifling.

Tim Schneider

Tim Schneider, CEO of solar energy company Earthlight Technologies, said his firm has 25 electricians and eight apprentices.

“By amending the law, we could employ another 12 apprentices who are currently unable to make a positive career transition towards a better salary to support their families,” Schneider said. “We can’t continue to ask for waivers to hire new apprentices, many of which rarely succeed. We need to change this law now and stand with our youth.”

State Sen. Julie Kushner (D-Danbury), co-chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, noted the legislature last year approved a new law that requires companies to disclose apprenticeship-related data that will help shed more light on the need to change the ratio.

The law requires companies to disclose the number of apprentices they have on staff, how many have gone on to complete their full licensing and the number of journeymen on staff.

“Some of these trades are very dangerous trades. And workers can get hurt if they don’t have the proper supervision, and I know that that is something that concerns us greatly,” Kushner said.

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