The proposed learning ratio raises concerns

Citing the state’s ongoing workforce issues, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry has proposed an increase in the number of apprentices who can be assigned to a single supervisor in work settings.

Supporters see the change as a key element in meeting growing construction and infrastructure needs statewide, while skeptics question whether the strategy could pose a risk to the quality of education and safety in the country. job.

The proposal, originally announced by DLI in September, would allow a journeyman – a licensed and fully trained tradesperson – to supervise the training and on-site work of two apprentices.

Under current administrative rules, the current requirement is two journeypersons for an apprentice, a ratio from DLI spokesperson Jessica Nelson described by email as “obsolete” and not in line with state ratios. neighbors. Nelson said the proposal “will increase learning opportunities for workers and strengthen our workforce, especially in needed sectors like construction.” She added that the DLI is pursuing change under the leadership of Governor Greg Gianforte.

Gianforte touted the proposal in mid-November, linking the timing of the ratio change to Montana’s growing housing needs and federal investments in broadband infrastructure.

“For too long, unnecessary red tape has immobilized employers seeking to provide learning opportunities and build a more skilled workforce,” said Gianforte. “With this common sense rule change, we can dramatically increase the learning opportunities for hardworking Montanais to meet current and future workforce needs. “

This assessment was taken up by labor commissioner Laurie Esau, and by seven business owners and industry leaders cited in a separate statement from Gianforte’s office. Among them were Brian VerHow, owner of Sheridan-based Volt Electric, David Smith, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association, and Bridger Mahlum, director of government relations for the Montana Chamber of Commerce.

Speaking to Montana Free Press this week, Mahlum said the change would not only create more learning opportunities than the state has been able to accommodate in the past, but help Montana capitalize on billions of dollars. federal infrastructure dollars recently passed through Congress.

Mahlum added that a common refrain from companies this year has been the inability to expand portfolios or take on new projects due to the difficulty in finding enough skilled workers.

“We are sitting on an incredible investment opportunity to cover critically needed infrastructure projects in this state,” said Mahlum. “The biggest concern I have on behalf of the Montana House, and I think many others would agree, is that we have this opportunity with capital unlike anything we’ve seen before, but do we have the workers to actually put the money in the road?

The MTFP also spoke with Smith, who said he has heard from business owners for at least two years about the need to revisit the apprentice-to-journeyperson ratio. The main driver, he added, is the desire “to interest more young people in the trades”.

“I understand the Department of Labor and Industry has taken that step and really listened to the construction industry, the trades, and said, ‘How do we get more young people to make a lot of money? in respectable professions? “” Smith mentioned. “For me, this is a very, very big victory for the construction industry.

A separate proposed rule change would exempt pre-apprentices, who have not yet started the programs but can still perform light tasks on construction sites, from being counted in the ratio.

Messages about improved training opportunities and workforce solutions have been tempered by concerns from unions and tradespeople in Montana that the change in ratio could lead to decreased workplace safety and erosion. the quality of vocational education.

These concerns were expressed to the DLI on Wednesday during a virtual public hearing to comment on the proposed change. During the hearing, George Bland, president of the Montana Electrical Training Center and business director of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Kalispell Local 768, called the DLI proposal “very alarming.”

“We can’t support it without modifications,” Bland said. “There may be industries where more journeyperson apprenticeship on the job site is acceptable, but in the construction industry, this is sheer madness.”

Davin Quist, director of training at Montana Carpenters Training Center, described how intensive the learnings are in an interview with MTFP. For four years, apprentices, who are paid for their work, spend an average of 160 hours per year in the classroom learning their chosen trade.

But most of their time – 40 to 60 hours per week – is spent working under the supervision and mentorship of their companion. Quist considers that a one-to-one ratio is ideal for ensuring a safe job site and a thorough educational experience for apprentices, and he said his first reaction to the change in ratio proposed by the DLI was “shock”.

“There are always changes that take place in the learnings and they usually go through committees and we talk about it, the pros and cons,” Quist said. “This one’s just kind of a shock… and it really puts these young guys in danger.”

Bill Bently, executive director of the Montana chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association, shared a list of similar concerns in a letter to Gianforte and Esau last month. Bently told the MTFP he understands the manpower issues behind the proposal, but sees the increase in the ratio as a “overreaction” that has been “forced by our throats” without collaboration. with his organization and others.

“Yes, we know there is a need for more people on the job site,” Bently said. “But you also have to be able to train the people on the job site, and with this new ratio, we’re really concerned that you can actually train the people on the job site. “

Smith said he was intrigued by the union’s reaction. He wonders why apprenticeship sponsors wouldn’t want more people to learn trades, and believes the safety culture that Montana businesses have strived to establish over the years will remain intact with the proposed new ratio.

“Everything on a construction site is a safety issue,” Smith said. “Honestly, you know, just walking under a bunch of planks. This [reaction] for me, it’s not focusing on the needs of the future workforce, if that’s the real attitude about not wanting to expand it.

But union leaders and supervisors are not the only Montanais to have reservations about increasing the ratio. Bill Ryan, Education Coordinator at Dick Anderson Construction, leads the private enterprise apprenticeship program.

Having supervised apprentices as journeypersons himself, he is familiar with the demands of on-the-job training. It’s a relationship, he said, that requires patience, confidence, and the comfort of a journeyman in his skills as a tradesperson and teacher. Ryan said the current ratio “doesn’t hurt” Dick Anderson Construction, and the proposed change is unlikely either.

“But we’re going to be very careful in making sure we have the right number of apprentices per journeyman and not overload that relationship,” Ryan said.

While he is optimistic that the change may help ease the state’s labor shortage, Ryan has his doubts as well. For starters, he said, Montana and the country currently face a shortage of journeypersons to take on supervisory roles, and it’s not always easy to find one with the right mix of skills for. take an apprentice under his wing. The DLI specifically mentioned the increased number of journeypersons in the state as a long-term benefit of the ratio change.

The other challenge Ryan noted is that the job industry continues to face decades of stigma around trade-based education, making it difficult to find people interested in entering apprenticeships. This challenge is unlikely to change on the sole basis of an increase in the ratio, he said.

“The stigma around apprenticeship and vocational technical training, the skilled trades, has to change,” Ryan said. “The apprenticeship rate is kind of a moot point if we can’t get young people to start considering these types of jobs, these types of careers. “

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