On Tuesday, the state Assembly Committee on Workforce Development held a public hearing on Assembly Bill 508, a bill to change the rules on apprenticeship ratios in the skilled trades. The bill was introduced by state Senator Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, and Representative Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield. John Schulze of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin spoke in favor of the bill, and these are his remarks as prepared.

Chairman Petryk and committee members, thank you for the privilege to speak today in favor of Assembly Bill 508 which will help bridge the construction skills gap in Wisconsin without costing additional tax dollars.

I am John Schulze, Director of Legal and Government Affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin – a construction trade association made up of nearly 900 employers. ABC’s apprenticeship program is celebrating its 30-anniversary this year – and if you are looking for gift ideas, I am told that 30 years is “pearl.”

Currently ABC trains 1,300 apprentices across 12 different trades. Most of our related instruction is provided through 9 Wisconsin technical colleges.  

I would like to apologize that chapter President John Mielke could not be here today because he is meeting with ABC members about the Foxconn development.  Even before Foxconn, our members have been telling us that their biggest challenge is finding skilled workers. Three of them took off work today to tell you their stories. Both they and ABC believe that AB 508 can be part of the skills gap solution in two ways: First, it addresses apprentice-skilled worker ratios, and second, it allows greater flexibility for all apprenticeship programs.  

We also would ask that the committee adopt an amendment that was added to AB 508’s companion legislation – SB 411, which addresses federal preemption concerns raised by Operating Engineers local 138, and scope of work concerns raised by the Plumbing Heating Cooling Contractors of Wisconsin.  

Regarding Ratios, we have heard from construction employers who cannot hire as many apprentices as they want to train because of current DWD rules that are prohibitive, if not convoluted.  The Sgt. Staff has distributed Wisconsin’s current skilled worker – apprentice ratios, and as a guide, the larger number is always the skilled worker number.   

For example, if you want 1 painter apprentice, you need 1 skilled worker to oversee them. But, if you want to bring on 4 painters, you need 12 skilled workers to oversee them. Laborer is 2 skilled for 1 apprentice until you get to 10 apprentices, at which point it jumps to 22 skilled workers and thereafter 5 more skilled workers for each additional apprentice.

Employers have told us there are times when they have two great candidates for the apprenticeship program, but can only start one because of the current ratio. It’s hard for contractors to face this kind of decision and risk losing a good candidate to another employer.

Wisconsin is behind other states. Iowa, Utah, North Dakota, Colorado, and Nebraska have 1-1 ratios. The federal government routinely approves 1-1 ratios for its apprenticeship programs. Michigan just passed a law that allows 3 electrical apprentices to serve under 1 skilled worker. 

Other Reforms in Legislation.  Out of all the construction trades, only TWO have the length of their apprenticeship set in statute – carpentry and plumbing. All other trades’ lengths are set by a joint management – labor advisory committee specific to that trade. 

For example, recently the electrical apprentice advisory committee made up of labor and management unanimously changed the electrical apprenticeship so it would be possible to finish in 4 years rather than 5. That would not be possible for carpentry and plumbing.  

This legislation is not an effort to reduce the length of the Plumbing Apprenticeship. ABC of Wisconsin supports a five-year program for Plumbing Apprenticeship. This legislation simply puts the length of apprenticeship in the hands of the State Plumbing Apprenticeship Advisory Committee and State Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards, like virtually all other apprenticeship programs, such as HVAC and electrical.

AB 508 would help get more skilled workers to get into the building trades without costing taxpayers any more money or endangering safety.

Thank you for your time and your consideration.  I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.  

John Schulze is the Director of Legal and Government Affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin.