The Journal’s View: Access to apprenticeships should be legislative focus
~February 16th, 2023
Washington state legislators need to take steps to increase access to construction-trade apprenticeships.
The interest in construction careers is greater than the availability of apprenticeship opportunities, trade executives say, and that bottleneck needs to be addressed for the industry to function in a more healthy manner.
Two bills in play in Olympia now have the potential to bolster training, and those bills should be the focus of legislative action on the topic during the current session. A couple of other bills add requirements for contractors and subcontractors to employ apprenticeships, but without adding training opportunities, those bills have the potential of making the task of finding workers more difficult, in all likelihood.
The cluster of legislation is occurring at a time during which construction worker shortages have increased costs and impeded project timelines in some cases. It’s an important issue to address, with the right focus, now.
One step in the right direction is Senate Bill 1013, which would establish regional career and technical training programs in high schools statewide. The bill refers to them as regional apprenticeship programs, and some in the industry say they would be more like pre-apprenticeship programs. Regardless, establishing such a system could be a positive step toward introducing more students to the trades.
An important solution lies in House Bill 1773. Introduced by Rep. Suzanne Schmidt, a freshman lawmaker from Spokane Valley, the legislation would prohibit competitor objections to new apprenticeship programs. Confoundingly, in Washington state, an established apprenticeship program can object to a proposed program for a wide spectrum of reasons, delaying a new program’s implementation or killing it altogether in some cases. Schmidt’s bill would end that practice, thereby making it easier for new apprenticeship programs to be established.
This objection process appears to be a way to restrict access to the established programs, largely run by unions, and force young workers into specific paths—paths that are often only available in urban markets and, once again, don’t include enough spots for everybody who’s interested. It’s an objection that doesn’t mesh well with the greater good.
Two other bills would create mandates regarding the employment of apprenticeships. House Bill 1050, sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, of Spokane, would expand apprenticeship utilization requirements to all municipalities. If successful, that bill would require all contractors and subcontractors on all city and county projects to use apprentices for 15% of labor hours.
Senate Bill 5133 would require all bidders to be registered training agents and to attest that their subcontractors will be registered as well. Unless the number of approved programs increases, this bill would limit which companies could bid on public work, which is neither good for the state or its taxpayers.
Both of the latter bills exacerbate a dichotomy between government mandates and a limited number of training opportunities. The worst-case scenario for the trades would occur if more mandates passed while more access to apprenticeships languished.
We applaud our elected officials’ focus on apprenticeships, but we hope they focus their energies on expanding opportunities, rather than restricting competition in the name of workforce development. The state’s construction industry needs that, and its young workers deserve it.