State scraps revisions to workforce training regulations
State Labor Department officials have for now scrapped a plan to overhaul training requirements for aspiring plumbers, electricians and linemen following strong pushback from legislators and numerous construction trade groups.
Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter announced Feb. 7 that the department had suspended the pending regulations package to allow for additional stakeholder engagement on ways to strengthen career and technical training.
The 30-page packet of regulatory revisions also addressed numerous other technical code changes, but the lion’s share of the more than 400 pages of public comments submitted to the state about the proposed changes were focused on the prospect of removing apprenticeship requirements for the highly technical trades.
“My goal is to ensure that Alaskans are trained and prepared to participate in this economy,” Ledbetter said in a formal statement. “Many good ideas have already emerged from this process. I am confident that through respectful dialogue we will get the best possible outcome for the Alaskans that we serve.”
This past Dec. 4, the department issued proposed regulations that would allow individuals seeking to become a journeyman plumber, electrician or lineman to qualify for the certificate of fitness exam for a given trade through 12,000 of general work experience in the field instead of the currently mandated 8,000 hours of work in a registered apprenticeship.
Numerous other proposed changes dealt with building code issues and didn’t elicit the same response.
Lawmakers in a Feb. 5 House Labor and Commerce Committee meeting said the plan would amount to a workaround that requires little documentation for contractors that want to offer journeyman opportunities while paying lower wages to inexperienced workers.
Workers’ Compensation Division Director Grey Mitchell said the on-the-job training proposal would still require trainees to take the requisite certificate of fitness exam after accruing the 12,000 work hours to reach journeyman status.
“Our goal was simple, to increase training opportunities and employment opportunities for individual Alaskans and give employers more options to train their future workforce,” Mitchell said.
Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, a director for Laborers’ Local 341, said the proposal inadvertently undermines contractors that invested in apprenticeship programs because employers that offer the work experience route would not be subject to the same wage scales as companies that utilize a certified apprenticeship. It would encourage employers to hire out-of-state workers who would accept lower wages, according to Fields.
“You’re setting up a puppy mill type of operation. This is not good public policy,” he said.
Fields also said reaching the 12,000-hour threshold would be unrealistic for many trainees in the often seasonal fields.
Lawmakers were also critical of the department’s decision to issue the changes without actively consulting industry stakeholders.
According to Mitchell, 37 states don’t require apprenticeship experience to take a journeyman exam. That puts Alaskans at a competitive disadvantage, he said.
“A lot of these adjustments are things that staff have basically heard from the public over a number of years,” said Mitchell, who spent much of his career in the department’s Labor Standards and Safety Division.
An initial iteration of the regulations also allowed employers to supervise journeyman trainees at a 10-1 ratio, but that provision was stripped out before implementation of the whole package was suspended.
Fields was one of 17 Republicans and Democrats the House and Senate and independent Rep. Dan Ortiz who signed a Jan. 13 letter to Ledbetter express their “strong opposition” to the proposed training regulations.
Lawmakers argued the regulations would allow trainees to repeatedly perform basic tasks without adequate skill growth while still accruing training work hours.
“We want good jobs with decent pay and excellent training for high-standard, quality work and safety,” the Jan. 13 letter states. “We urge you to withdraw these proposed regulations and stand with Alaska businesses and workers for whom the apprenticeship system is the foundation of workforce development.”
Associated Builders and Contractors of Alaska President Amy Nibert said during the Feb. 5 hearing that the department should withdraw the regulations and engage stakeholders to resolve the issues that have been raised.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].