Americans are ready to rebuild our neglected infrastructure — schools, highways, bridges, dams, public transit — but we also can’t neglect the big challenge ahead of us. We need to fill a shortage of 500,000 skilled construction workers; a number that could double if the promise of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal in Washington becomes a reality.
Meanwhile in Wisconsin, our construction unemployment is at record lows and the scarcity of skilled workers will only get worse, thanks to the development of Foxconn, a project that could require more than 10,000 workers for five years.
February is Career and Technical Education Month, and it comes at the perfect time to celebrate the students, apprentices, teachers, technical colleges and industry partners who are growing the career readiness of America’s construction workforce. Unfortunately, we’ve neglected career and technical education over the years and now we’re beginning to pay for it, quite literally.
Here in Wisconsin, Associated Builders and Contractors has more than 1,300 apprentices in 12 trades at 10 technical colleges. We are constantly advocating for the return of CTE in high schools to expand the pipeline of individuals looking for high-paying careers in the trades. The new Wisconsin Technical College System Completion Report for 2015-16 Apprenticeship Graduates shows the median annual salary for these new graduates at more than $71,600. That’s a number that is sure to attract more candidates to the skilled trades. But will we be able to train fast enough?
Policymakers at all levels of government should help bridge the skills gap and encourage the expansion of the trades’ workforce of the future. In Wisconsin, there’s a Legislative initiative that could put a dent in the shortages of skilled construction workers by providing more access to apprenticeships. It’s Assembly Bill 508, commonly referred to as the “Apprenticeship Ratio Legislation,” to allow more apprentices to enter the field by removing unnecessary restrictions.
It takes between four to six years for an apprentice to complete his or her training. Construction employers cannot hire as many apprentices as they want or need to train because of current Department of Workforce Development rules that are equal parts prohibitive and convoluted. For example, if you want one painter apprentice, you need one skilled worker to oversee that person. But, if you want to bring on four painting apprentices, you need 12 skilled workers to oversee them. The Laborer Apprenticeship requires two skilled for every one apprentice until you get to 10 apprentices, at which point it jumps to 22 skilled workers and thereafter, five more skilled workers for each additional apprentice.
It’s imperative to get more individuals into training as quickly as possible to produce more skilled workers in the apprenticeship pipeline. However, Wisconsin is behind other states. Iowa, Utah, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska have safely implemented one-to-one ratios. The federal government routinely approves one-to-one ratios for its apprenticeship programs. Michigan just passed a law that allows three electrical apprentices to serve under one skilled worker.
AB 508 has passed the Wisconsin Assembly and is waiting for Senate action so it can move to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. There is not one magic solution to solving the skills gap in industries like construction, but AB 508 is a common-sense measure to expand CTE opportunities for individuals who want to train for these high-paying careers.