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Proposed change to on-the-job training regs rankles Montana labor

by By ARREN KIMBEL-SANNIT Daily Montanan
| November 23, 2021 12:00 AM

Trade unions and state officials are at odds over a proposed rule that would increase the number of apprentices who can work under a journeyman tradesman, with directors of union training programs warning that the change could pose safety risks and decrease the quality of hands-on learning in the workplace.

Current state policy says that one journeyman can train the first apprentice employed by a sponsor, but that two additional journeyman are required to train each subsequent apprentice. The new rule, currently making its way through the administrative rule-making review process, establishes instead an apprentice-to-journeyman ratio of 2:1.

“It is nearly impossible to oversee and safely train two apprentices with one journeyman,” said Mykal Jorgensen, director of training for the Billings Pipe Trades Local 30, in a statement released by the Montana AFL-CIO. “What failsafes would be put in place to ensure that one apprentice doesn’t electrocute themselves or start a fire while the journeyman is with the other apprentice? Having had my own apprentices in the past, I know how quickly things can happen.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte directed the Department of Labor and Industry to pursue the change, which he and Director Laurie Esau announced this week, touting it as a way to expand access to apprenticeships and economic opportunity while cutting red tape. Creating that flexibility, they contend, can help business owners in the state hire more skilled labor.

“For too long, unnecessary red tape has tied up employers looking to offer apprenticeship opportunities and build a more highly-skilled workforce,” Gov. Gianforte said in a written statement. “With this commonsense rule change, we can dramatically increase apprenticeship opportunities for hardworking Montanans to meet current and future workforce needs.”

Apprenticeships are registered and regulated programs that function as a way for would-be electricians, roofers, and workers in other trades to get paid to train under more seasoned journeymen on a job site, often leading to higher overall pay compared to those who don’t complete apprenticeships. Employers, trade unions, contracting associations and other sponsors administer the programs, depending on the nature of the apprenticeship. Around 2,600 apprentices have worked in Montana this year, according to the Governor’s Office.

This change would allow more workers in the state to complete on-the-job training without a sponsor needing to commensurately increase the number of journeymen supervising them, an idea favored by Montana business groups who say it would bring the state in alignment with its neighbors.

“The current apprentice to journeyman ratio in Montana is outdated and serves as a bottleneck to hiring and training badly needed electrical apprentices,” said Margaret Morgan, executive director of Montana Independent Electrical Contractors, in a statement. “With a positive change to the apprenticeship ratio, independent electrical contractors will be able to hire and train many more apprentices.”

But unions and union trainers fear such a change, akin to increasing a student-teacher ratio in a classroom, would decrease safety on a worksite, while only making the work-product worse. The vast majority of apprentices in the state work in construction, according to the AFL-CIO, “on job sites that can be dangerous and require specialized knowledge and hands-on experience.”

Moreover, critics of the proposed rule amendment said it would in fact allow for an even greater ratio than 2:1, due to an existing administrative rule that says an apprentice “that has completed 60 percent or more of the on-the-job training hours and 60 percent or more of the related instruction in an apprenticeship program is not counted for purposes of the apprentice-to-journeyman ratio.”

So, theoretically, if both apprentices attached to a journeyman complete the requisite training hours, two more could be brought on under the same journeyman, further stretching training resources while also bringing down the average pay rate at a workplace. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Industry did not specifically respond to this concern, but confirmed that the variance allowing “apprentices to work with progressively less supervision as they receive more training” is unchanged.

The rule is not final, and DLI can amend or entirely strike the proposed change based on public comment. The department will hold a hearing on the proposal on Dec. 8.