On December 6, State Rep. Tim Ackert, (R – Coventry), published an opinion piece in the Hartford Courant titled, “We have skilled apprentices ready to join the workforce, but state regulations are preventing them from being hired in Connecticut.” Rep. Ackert claims that weakening or repealing the state’s apprentice hiring ratio would resolve a labor shortage in the licensed construction trades. He’s wrong.
Rep. Ackert is a member of the General Law Committee, which has cognizance over the Department of Consumer Protection, the agency that administers occupational licenses. The General Law Committee created a working group to study apprentice ratios. The non-union contractors on the working group – the loudest opposition to apprentice ratios – are represented by the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), an anti-union association that lobbies the legislature against good workplace standards, including licensing. It’s worth noting that ABC presented Rep. Ackert with their 2021 Legislator of the Year award. It’s also worth noting that Rep. Ackert owns his own nonunion electrical company.
Construction apprenticeships generally take between three to five years to complete. Union programs are robust, with on-the-job training and classroom instruction. Apprentices are paid on a scale, depending on what year of their apprenticeship program they’re in. Each year, the apprentice’s pay moves up until they complete the program, wherein they earn the full journeyperson rate.
In Connecticut, the Building Trade unions and their contractor partners invest over $25 million into their apprenticeship programs annually. This is an example of a partnership between labor and management that has resulted in successful careers throughout our state.
The word “apprenticeship” has been widely adopted by legislators and state and municipal officials, and we welcome this renewed focus on apprenticeship programs. But apprenticeship programs are only successful when apprentices are given the opportunity to complete them and graduate to a journeyperson status.
The completion rates among the nonunion construction sector are abysmal. Whereas the union completion rates are over 50%, and in some trades around 80%, the nonunion completion rates are well below the national average, hovering below 40%. It’s an embarrassment. It’s also why one contractor on the Working Group suggested that apprentices leaving his company for higher paying jobs not be calculated against his completion rate. That’s outrageous. If a nonunion company offers such low pay that they cannot attract and retain a workforce, that’s on them.
Our apprenticeship programs will be undermined and rendered moot if they are simply used as a ploy to hire cheap labor. Connecticut’s construction workforce represents some of the best trained workers in the nation. We want to hire and train more apprentices and create more opportunities to face the ever-changing needs of our industry. But hiring an apprentice cheaply and then laying them off before they have an opportunity to complete a program is wrong and unethical.
We agree with Rep. Ackert that the construction industry is aging and we need to attract a younger, more diverse workforce. Construction Dive published an article on October 27, 2021 titled, “Construction’s career crisis: Can the industry attract millennials and Gen Z?”, offering that, “”If you’re a drywall contractor and looking for people, drywall finishing is a skill … you can’t just take someone from off the street,” said Brent MacDonald, an instructor in construction management at Indiana State. “You have to train them to be a drywall finisher and pay them accordingly. And now that we have this competitive talent market, you can no longer pay someone $13 an hour.”
Apprentice ratios are not a hindrance to hiring construction workers. Wages and benefits are. And yet, Rep. Ackert, and some of his colleagues, have submitted countless bills seeking to weaken or repeal our state’s prevailing wage law, which protects construction workers from exploitation and poverty.
So, what’s this really about? The nonunion sector wants to be able to hire apprentices at a lesser rate. They don’t want to be held to any standard to ensure that apprentices complete their program. And they want to repeal prevailing wage protections. What Rep. Ackert is really suggesting is a race-to-the-bottom and workers are the ones who will lose the most. This is not a framework for how to respond to a worker shortage. It’s a blueprint for how contractors can more easily enrich themselves.
If you’re a construction worker who has an employer advocating for cheap labor, we have a solution – unionize!
Keith Brothers is President of the Connecticut State Building Trades Council/ Voluntown.