Bill may bolster apprenticeships

February 16, 1997


Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - Recently John Barr's company, Ellsworth Electric Co., was asked to bid on a federal construction project near Shepherdstown, W.Va.

It would have been a good job, using about 20 of Barr's workers. But he didn't have the people to spare and had to reluctantly turn away the business.

"We just said we can't help you," said Barr, president and owner of the Hagerstown company.

Ellsworth and other area contractors are suffering from a shortage of skilled electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other trades workers, officials said. It's a shortage that begins with the simple fact that fewer younger people going into trade apprenticeship programs, he said.


"We're begging for people," Barr said.

Maryland Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington has sponsored legislation that would have the state paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to jump-start apprenticeship programs and get more people in the building trades.

"I think this is perfect for our area because we repeatedly hear people say you can't get a good-wage job in Washington County," Poole said.

The state once had a program that poured money into trades apprenticeships, but its funding was gutted five years ago as part of recession-era budget cuts.

The loss of funding has had a dramatic impact, said Joan L. Warner, executive director of the Cumberland Valley chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors. She said when the state funded apprenticeships, there were 370 people enrolled in ABC's apprentice program.

Today, about 130 people are enrolled.

The problem is the lack of state funding has shifted the burden for trades programs onto the contractors and students, and the cost can be significant: Tuition for the ABC program costs $900 a year for students employed by its members and $1,100 a year for nonmembers.

A typical apprenticeship program, which includes both practical work and classroom study, lasts four years.

Even though many contractors will reimburse employees who complete an apprenticeship, many students can't spend the thousands of dollars up front, Warner said.

The fallout has hit the contractors hard, she said.

"They can't bid on certain work because they don't have the workers. It's a serious problem," she said.

According to Poole's bill, apprentices would be eligible for grants of no more than $1,000, which would be awarded to private-sector training programs.

A broader bill proposed by Poole last year died in a House of Delegates committee. This year the bill has the support of both the ABC and the AFL-CIO, which have their own apprenticeship programs.

"This is one of those cases where labor and management are coming together," Poole said.

Last year the state estimated the program would cost $1.2 million. There are no estimates available yet, but Poole said the cost will probably be lower this time because the legislation now focuses only on construction trades.

Poole said the program would be worth the cost. For every dollar spent on apprenticeships by government, apprentices pay $20.60 in state and federal income taxes, according to the Maryland Apprenticeship and Training Program.

And there are other benefits, said Frank Murphy, vice president of Warren Electrical Construction Corp. in Myersville, Md. He said a healthy apprenticeship program translates into better, more efficient construction.

"If there is not enough quality, skilled people out there, the product will be inferior and the impact will come in the long term," he said.

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