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News & Press: Legislative

Guest Column, September 2017

Tuesday, September 19, 2017   (0 Comments)
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Guest Column: Senator Chris Kapenga, 33rd State Senate District

Wisconsin faces an impending shortage of workers in the skilled trades that will only be exacerbated as the baby boomer generation nears retirement. This issue has been well-documented, with 500,000 openings nationwide in construction trades alone. A June 2016 survey by the National Association of Homebuilders found that 68% of builders and 78% of subcontractors reported a shortage of workers, and a recent survey from the Associated General Contractors found that 70% of contractors are having difficulty finding workers.

With an expected flurry of activity around the state as the result of the proposed Foxconn investment, the need for skilled workers is more evident than ever. However, there is a major bottleneck that prevents these workers from entering the workforce: Wisconsin’s mandated apprentice-to-journeyworker ratio.

This ratio mandates that a certain number of journeyworkers be employed for each apprentice hired. While this number varies by trade, it has proven to be an unnecessary burden to employers. Between the worker shortage and ratio requirement, small and medium-sized contractors face an uphill battle to find the journeyworkers needed to hire additional apprentices.

Most employers I speak with acknowledge that potential employees often lack both the soft and hard skills needed to succeed. Apprenticeships offer a unique opportunity for the next generation to develop a meaningful career, gain valuable soft and specific work skills, and earn money while they learn. In fact, a typical UW-Madison undergrad student will spend more than $48,000 on tuition and books over a four-year period, while the average apprentice will earn over $161,000 during a five-year apprenticeship period. On top of that, the average apprentice will likely earn an equivalent, or better, salary than someone who graduates with a bachelor’s degree.

As technology continues to advance, especially when it comes to the use of automation and robotics in manufacturing, the skillsets needed from employees change.  For that reason, many employers are beginning to examine developing new apprenticeship programs to meet the needs of the modern economy. For example, Waukesha County Technical College worked with area employers to develop a Mechatronic Technician apprenticeship, which focuses on troubleshooting and repairing industrial automation equipment. President Trump also recently signed an executive order that reduces red tape and will allow more employer input into the development of these programs. Ultimately, this could have the effect of increasing apprenticeships nationwide. Recognizing the value that apprenticeships provide, Representative Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) and I introduced a bill last week that would set a standard apprentice-to-journeyworker ratio of 1:1 across the board. This will ensure that Wisconsin contractors and employers will have the ability to hire additional apprentices and fill open positions, while maintaining a safety standard that is recognized by many states across the nation. The impact could more than double the allowable apprentices in a majority of the construction trades, resulting in a significant increase in opportunities for workers and contractors alike.

Wisconsin has made great strides over the past six years to encourage the importance of work and lower barriers for individuals seeking gainful employment. This bill is yet another reform to help people achieve the American dream by ensuring that the government is not getting in the way of opportunities.    

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