Shifting apprenticeship requirements have independents concerned
Change can be a challenge, especially when it comes to making industry-wide and/or statewide revisions. But that’s exactly what’s happening right now with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industry and the electrical apprenticeship path.
A significant standardization in the path to becoming a journey-level electrician, and therefore a master electrician, is scheduled to go into effect beginning July 2023. While many see this evolution as progress toward increasing clarity and safety across the industry, others believe that all the moving parts are not ready for the coming transition.
Some fear this shift could lead to an even greater shortage of skilled electricians across the state, even greater than we’re already experiencing as a result of the pandemic and the cultural shift from the skilled trades toward higher education. Many worry that a further journeyman shortage could cause a full cascade of other unforeseen impacts in virtually every industry dependent on electrical workers.
“You’re likely to see a slowdown of commercial building, a delay in permitting and increasing costs in the building trades,” predicts Mark Harmsworth, a former member of the Washington State House of Representatives (2014 to 2018) and the current director of the Center for Small Business at the Washington Policy Center. “If the certification process starts to feel like too much or is difficult to obtain, workers will choose a different career, and that’s where you’re going to have problems with employment. It’s supply and demand.”
Some are so concerned about the shift that they are lobbying the Washington Legislature for a delay so that the electrical industry can prepare more fully.
And if all that weren’t enough to worry business owners, the body leading this transition, L&I’s Washington State Apprenticeship Council, has been asking for legislative authority to expand its charter to create state-required apprenticeship programs in several new industry sectors where a standard does not currently exist. Under consideration are the building trades, manufacturing, engineering, health care, behavioral health, information and communications technology, biotechnology and hospitality, to name just a few. Many question whether certification at this level is really necessary and whether further state-required apprenticeship would cause greater worker shortages in all industries.
Preparing for change
In March 2018, state Senate Bill 6126 was signed into law, requiring that electricians complete a state-approved apprenticeship program in order to receive their journey-level electrician certificate of competency, known in the industry as level EL01, or “01.” Earning 01 status certifies a journeyman to work in commercial, industrial and all specialty electrical categories.
But without the certification, electricians are eligible to work only in residential settings, effectively limiting the type of work they can perform for an employer — and, by extension, limiting the type of work an employer can accept and go after. Because commercial and industrial electrical work generally pays better than residential electrical work, certification changes could significantly impact company earnings.
To obtain 01 status, an electrician must complete at least 8,000 on-the-job hours as an electrical trainee while under the supervision of a certified journey-level (01) electrician at least 75% of the time, with at least 4,000 of those hours spent in commercial or industrial settings. In addition, 96 hours of basic classroom instruction are required, including at least 48 hours every two years to stay current.
But beginning July 1, 2023, to qualify for the EL01 examination to work on a commercial jobsite, trainees must first be registered in a recognized electrical apprenticeship program. Therein lies the rub.
“The unfortunate situation is that this takes us from five pathways that are currently available to achieve journey certification to just one through state-approved apprenticeship programs,” said Lance Calloway, of Associated General Contractors of Washington. “As of now, that one path is predominantly operated by union-sponsored apprenticeship programs or closed programs that are not open to outside enrollment.”
That poses a significant problem for small to medium independent electrical contractors.
The bill included a planned delay before the requirement would take effect to allow the industry to prepare. The original rollout date was delayed two years because of the pandemic, but some believe that delay wasn’t long enough.
“I think the idea is to expand standards and trainings for apprenticeships, which is great, but I think they’re trying to bite off way too much and without enough preparation and thinking it through for everyone in the industry,” said Chris Scherer, owner of North Wave Electric, a small, independent, family-owned commercial and residential electrical contractor based in Bellingham.
In early February, Scherer testified in Olympia before the House Committee on Labor & Workplace Standards in support of House Bill 1393, a bill with bipartisan sponsorship that requests a further delay in implementing SB 6126 because, as the bill’s language states, there are “only 14 approved apprenticeship programs for journey level electricians in the state.” It continues that L& I “is unable to assess whether there is sufficient capacity in those programs for all current trainees” — specifically, the “7,000 to 10,000 trainees working towards journey level certification who are not enrolled in an apprenticeship program.”
The bill goes on to mention the lack of availability of these apprenticeship programs in rural areas of the state, noting a four-hour-per-day commute for some, which would add transportation and cost hurdles for many where they do not currently exist.
“This will affect virtually every commercial electrical contractor in the state,” Scherer said. “After July 1, without a delay, if our employees aren’t enrolled in these apprenticeship programs, they can no longer be on site or work in the field in a commercial capacity.”
This delay is very much needed,” he added. “The two biggest bottlenecks I see ahead are a shortage of spots in approved programs and the difficulty of getting new programs approved by the state.”
Potential bottleneck No. 1: apprenticeship program capacity
Independent contractors are concerned that the Construction Industry Training Council of Washington, a 501(c)3 nonprofit vocational trade school for the construction industry, won’t be able to handle all of the increased demand by July 1. Fourteen approved programs might sound like a lot, but many say that number is misleading.
“Seven of those 14 programs are union, and so if you’re an open shop, those programs are not available to you,” Scherer said.
The largest union program, run by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, represents approximately 775,000 active members and retirees working in a wide variety of electrical fields.
“Five of the non-union programs are single-employer programs, but those are only available to employees that work for those contractors, so that doesn’t work for most people,” Scherer said. “The remaining two programs are the only options available for all of the open (non-union) shops in the state.”
Indeed, just two entities are currently considered “recognized electrical apprenticeship programs” available to independents — CITC and the Electrical Management Group of Washington.
“EMGOW is located in Vancouver, so unless you’re in the southwest corner of the state, it’s not very available to you,” Scherer said. “CITC is a great asset to our business, because they offer the classroom hours trainees need, and they are located throughout the state. But there are current CITC apprentices who testified that their classes are being delayed because CITC doesn’t have enough instructors, even before the new rules have been implemented. In the electrical trade, we also don’t have enough inspectors, which are the same people they’ll need as instructors for these apprenticeship programs.”
“That will increase employer costs, because they pay for the classroom training,” Scherer said. “,and those costs will get passed on to consumers in the form of hourly rates.”
Hourly rates and overhead costs already have gone up significantly in the past two years due to post-pandemic worker shortages, wage corrections and inflation.
But CITC isn’t worried.
“We’ve been methodically preparing for this for more than three years,” said Halene Sigmund, who has served as CITC’s president and CEO since 2010. “We have increased our support staff and are developing new relationships with technical and community colleges across the state, including Bellingham Technical College, where we offered classes this past fall and we will again this coming fall.”
CITC has considered the extra travel and overnight costs contractors and trainees must pay to attend classes outside their areas.
“We help support trainees by offering daily travel stipends for those traveling a greater distance, like those coming from places like Freeland, where they have to take a ferry,” Sigmund said. “And we’ve established discounts at select hotels to help lower trainee and contractor costs. We also offer several $1,000 Gene Harder needs-based scholarships.”
Sigmund believes that CITC is offering a range of opportunities for trainees to obtain their classroom hours.
“Everyone should be able to get their hours via evening, weekend, monthly and week-long block classes we offer,” Sigmund said, noting that daytime classes also are in the works at each of the six CITC training centers sprinkled throughout the state. “We are hiring full-time instructors and have expanded our brick-and-mortar footprint. In Vancouver, we’re building 30,000 square feet of facilities and labs right now. Our facility in Puyallup will be over $5 million dollars when we build it all out with labs. And over the last three years, we have literally increased staff by 25% to 30% to address this specific need.”
CITC does have some prior experience with these challenges.
“This is very similar to Oregon and Idaho training requirements for 01 electricians, so I think this will shore up and actually increase the number of individuals available at journey level, because we are coming together as an industry in training,” Sigmund said. “There will be a clear pathway for them to get there, and when the pathway to their goal is more clear, then that is much more attractive.”
Potential bottleneck No. 2: obtaining state approval of additional programs to meet demand
“Under the new legislation, independent contractors will become caught where we can’t start our own programs,” Scherer said. “So now we can’t directly hire our own employees anymore. We can only sign on with an apprenticeship program and hope they give us employees that will be the right fit. The new process takes a lot of the power to manage our own workforce out of our hands, and that’s unsettling.”
Sigmund confirmed that CITC does use a referral dispatch system, where apprentice trainees are sent upon employer request, but she was quick to note that employers may use their own practices to select employees from among those dispatched.
“There is already a process to start new state-certified apprenticeship programs, but it’s a very lengthy process,” Harmsworth said.
An entity must apply to and be approved by L&I’s WSATC, the same entity that instigated SB 6126, but obtaining certification may be more difficult than it sounds.
“Part of the process includes the competition clause that allows existing programs to voice opposition to new programs, basically denying them approval and throwing applicants into costly litigation,” Scherer said.
Because these groups have gone through the process already, they are the ones that control what new bodies become certified, Harmsworth said.
“So it’s in their best interest not to certify other programs,” he said, “because then existing programs like CITC and IBEW will lose their control and have more competition.”
Often, Calloway said, the challenges come from multiple unions, which fight them without the certainty of winning.
“I know of one entity who fought their challenges and spent nearly $1 million in legal fees and experienced over 18 months on delays in moving forward.”
Discussions are happening now that could reduce the frequency and power of the objection process.
“I have spoken with Sophia Steele, the director of government affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Washington,” Calloway said. “HB1773 introduces a proposed change that would not allow competitors to challenge a new apprenticeship program applicant, as long as the applicant exactly meets the apprenticeship program requirements and follows them.”
But the program requirements were originally designed with larger entities in mind and are not practical or achievable for small to midsize contractors, Scherer said.
“This system is mostly built and maintained by union shops, so now this legislation is bringing us independents into a system that’s not built and devised for us,” he said. “We’re not these huge entities that can build training centers. The fewer employees you have, the more impact this legislation has on you, because you have the least flexibility.”
A host of unknowns
Unfortunately, SB 6126 did not fast-track provisions to meet demand, nor are there funding subsidies for smaller entities to cover the significant costs associated with certifying new apprenticeship programs. The only funding that was included, Scherer said, was for expansion of programs that have already been approved.
SB 6126 does, however, allow for some exceptions, including a good cause exemption that delays the new requirement from July 1, 2023, to July 1, 2025, Calloway said. L&I filed a Proposed Rule Making (CR-102) in November 2022 that would give it the discretion to delay implementation for “good cause” — but the rule has not yet received final approval.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Sigmund said. “Anytime you have change, there’s uncertainty. Apprenticeship is a partnership between the employer, the apprentice and the apprenticeship sponsor — the apprenticeship program — where we work together to train a skilled, safe worker. Our success is our employers’ success. We’re trying to communicate well so we understand employer and apprentice concerns and work with them toward solutions so they all can achieve their goals.”
There is hope, Scherer said.
“I really want to believe that the industry will be able to come together and figure this out so that it works for everyone,” he said, “including the full diversity within the industry across the state, so more people can enter the field and address demand.”