HELENA — State leaders and contractors agree that registered apprenticeships have been a key program to help build Montana’s skilled workforce in the trades. Now, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration is proposing a rule change that could significantly increase the number of apprenticeships available in the state.
Registered apprenticeships combine classroom instruction with paid on-the-job training under an employer’s supervision. The Montana Department of Labor and Industry says 2,600 apprentices have been active this year, in 85 different occupations.
Currently, state administrative rules say an employer can have one journeyman – or fully trained worker – oversee the first apprentice they bring on. They must have two more journeymen for each additional apprentice. The Gianforte administration wants to reverse that ratio, allowing two apprentices for each journeyman.
“For too long, unnecessary red tape has tied up employers looking to offer apprenticeship opportunities and build a more highly-skilled workforce,” Gianforte said in a statement last month. “With this commonsense rule change, we can dramatically increase apprenticeship opportunities for hardworking Montanans to meet current and future workforce needs.”
Douglas Breker, the former president of Townsend Electric, Inc., in Townsend, is supportive of the change. He got his start as an apprentice in the 1970s, before he and his business partner took over ownership in 1981.
“We’ve trained – oh, I don’t know if I can count them all, the people who went through our apprenticeship training program when I was involved with the business,” he said.
Breker said the current rules are too restrictive.
“We could have easily put on more apprentices; the demand is there,” he said. “It was outdated when I left, and it’s even more outdated now.”
State leaders say increasing the availability of apprenticeships will help the state be ready for the expected jump in housing, broadband and other infrastructure projects over the coming years, and it will bring Montana in line with neighboring states. Wyoming also allows two apprentices to one journeyman, while North Dakota allows three to one and Idaho allows four to one.
“Surrounding states have been operating their apprenticeship programs successfully at higher ratios for years,” said a Department of Labor and Industry spokesperson in a statement. “The proposed ratio change would allow Montana to be competitive with other states. The new ratio would also allow more apprentices to complete the program while still being offered the same quality training.”
However, some in the affected industries have reservations about the proposed change. Bill Bentley is executive manager for the Montana chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association, or NECA – a nationwide organization that primarily represents contractors with unionized workforces. He doesn’t believe the state did enough consultation with stakeholders before announcing the new ratio.
“You can only train so many apprentices with one journeyman,” he said. “They have to supervise them, they have to instruct them – that’s called OJT, on-the-job training. The unintended consequences could be employers hiring more apprentices and laying off journeyman for cheaper labor.”
Bentley is also concerned that, if the state greatly increases the number of apprentices, it may make it difficult to find work for all of them if there is an economic downturn.
Bob Warren is an instructor at the Montana Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Center in Helena, which is a partnership between NECA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union. He says he’s concerned adding more apprentices would inevitably limit how well journeymen can supervise them – affecting the quality of on-the-job training and possibly safety.
“I had a journeyman that explained to me when I was a brand-new apprentice that this job can put you in a matchbox that quick – kill you,” Warren said, snapping his fingers. “So to me, safety is the number-one thing, and then second of all training – because they kind of go hand in hand, right? If you don’t understand what’s hot, what’s not, how to work it hot, how not to, it’s a moot point, right?”
Bentley and Warren said they might be able to support a ratio of one apprentice to one journeyman, as long as the state eliminates waivers that could allow some employers to have a higher ratio.
Breker says he doesn’t believe having one journeyman to oversee two apprentices is too much to ask.
“Go to a high school or a shop class or any of those things, they’ve got way more students for that one instructor,” he said. “If you’ve got one instructor helping these two apprentices, you’ve got 50% of them.”
The Department of Labor and Industry will be holding an online public hearing on the proposed rule change Wednesday at 9 a.m. You can find the full text of the rule proposal, along with information on how to participate in the hearing, here.