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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Spokane should reconsider vote on apprentices

The Spokane City Council should reconsider a scheduled vote on an ordinance that in 2017 would require a minimum 15 percent of workers on city construction projects be apprentices.

The proposal is too punitive, relies too much on the judgment of a yet-to-be-hired bureaucrat and addresses a problem contractors are trying to solve without city prodding.

The building trades have lost – and will lose many more – of their most-skilled workers over the next decade or so as they retire. Training replacements by putting them through apprenticeship programs makes sense. The federal and state governments, Spokane Public Schools and state universities already prescribe some percentage of the workforce on their projects be apprentices.

Those young workers cost much less as they are trained, but through the rest of their working lives they recoup $91 for every $1 they invested in their training, and as taxpayers they kick in $23 of additional revenue.

The city of Spokane, with hundreds of millions in street- and park-related jobs to bid in the next few years, certainly should encourage workforce training for its own good, and to raise the city’s lagging level of household income.

But fines and potential breach-of-contract rulings that would bar a contractor from bidding on future city projects are not encouragement. Yet that is the risk facing contractors, and small contractors in particular, who do not put enough apprentices on the job.

Only projects less than $350,000 are exempt. If materials represent the bulk of a project’s costs and, say, only four or five workers will be on the jobsite, the requirement might be waived.

By whom? The council-approved budget provides $60,000 for a compliance officer. Until one is hired, overworked city utilities Director Rick Romero would have that responsibility added to his portfolio.

But let’s go back and look at the problem the ordinance would allegedly solve.

The Washington Department of Transportation has a 15 percent apprentice-hour goal, but averages 12 percent. The city of Tacoma Local Employment and Apprenticeship Program, which originated in 1997, has attained 18 percent apprentice/local worker participation. But the much broader LEAP criteria counts veterans, workers ages 18-24, and those hired out of its community empowerment zone. There is also a pre-apprentice program.

Construction activity in Spokane is not yet so robust that all idle workers have been re-employed, as is more the case in the Puget Sound area. A longer season there makes it possible to keep trainees on the job long enough to generate a living wage.

Still, more than 470 would-be construction workers in the Spokane area are enrolled in apprenticeship programs offered by various trade union locals and the Association of General Contractors. Members of the AGC’s Inland Northwest chapter report that apprentice hours already represent 10 percent to 12 percent of total labor hours.

Contractors know better than the city that without trained workers they have no future. The best thing the city can do, and has been doing, is funding infrastructure projects that create jobs for apprentices and journeymen alike.

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