tradesmen installing a distribution board
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Citing the state’s ongoing workforce woes, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry has proposed an increase in the number of apprentices that can be assigned to a single supervisor in trade settings. Supporters view the change as a key component in meeting growing construction and infrastructure needs statewide, while skeptics question whether the strategy could pose a risk to educational quality and workplace safety.

The proposal, initially announced by DLI in September, would allow one journeyman — a licensed, fully educated tradesperson — to oversee the training and on-site work of two apprentices. Under current administrative rules, the prevailing requirement is two journeymen to one apprentice, a ratio DLI spokesperson Jessica Nelson described via email as “outdated” and out of alignment with ratios in neighboring states. Nelson said the proposal will “increase apprenticeship opportunities for workers and strengthen our workforce, particularly in needed sectors like construction.” She added that DLI is pursuing the change at the direction of Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Gianforte touted the proposal in mid-November, tying the timing of the ratio change to Montana’s growing need for housing and to federal investments in broadband infrastructure.

“For too long, unnecessary red tape has tied up employers looking to offer apprenticeship opportunities and build a more highly-skilled workforce,” Gianforte said. “With this commonsense rule change, we can dramatically increase apprenticeship opportunities for hardworking Montanans to meet current and future workforce needs.”

That assessment was echoed by Labor Commissioner Laurie Esau, and by seven business owners and industry leaders quoted in a separate release from Gianforte’s office. Among them were Sheridan-based Volt Electric owner Brian VerHow, Montana Contractors Association Executive Director David Smith and Bridger Mahlum, government relations director for the Montana Chamber of Commerce. 

“I appreciate that the Department of Labor and Industry has taken this step and really has listened to the construction industry, the trades, and has said, ‘How can we get more young people out there making good money in respectable professions? To me, that’s a really, really big win right there for the construction industry.” 

David Smith, executive director, Montana Contractors Association

Speaking with Montana Free Press this week, Mahlum said the change would not only create more apprenticeship opportunities than the state has been able to accommodate in the past, but would help Montana capitalize on billions of federal infrastructure dollars recently passed down by Congress. Mahlum added that a common refrain from businesses this year has been an inability to expand portfolios or accept new projects due to the difficulty of finding enough skilled workers.

“We are sitting on an incredible investment opportunity to cover critical-need infrastructure projects in this state,” Mahlum said. “The greatest concern that I have on behalf of the Montana Chamber, and I think many others would agree, is that we have this opportunity with capital unlike what we’ve ever seen before, but do we have the workers to actually put the money to the road?”

MTFP also spoke with Smith, who said he’s been hearing from business owners for at least two years about a need to revisit the apprenticeship-journeyman ratio. The primary driver, he added, is a desire to “get more young people interested in the trades.”

“I appreciate that the Department of Labor and Industry has taken this step and really has listened to the construction industry, the trades, and has said, ‘How can we get more young people out there making good money in respectable professions?’” Smith said. “To me, that’s a really, really big win right there for the construction industry.”

A separate proposed rule change would exempt pre-apprentices, who have not yet entered programs but may still handle light tasks on jobsites, from being counted toward the ratio.

Messaging about enhanced training opportunities and workforce solutions has been tempered by concerns among Montana unions and tradespeople that the ratio change could result in diminished workplace safety and erosion of the quality of trade-based education. Those concerns were articulated to DLI on Wednesday in a virtual public comment hearing on the proposed change. During the hearing, George Bland, chairman of the Montana Electrical Training Center and business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 768 in Kalispell, called the DLI proposal “very alarming.”

“We cannot support it without modifications,” Bland said. “There may be industries where more apprentices to journeymen on the jobsite is OK, but in the construction industry that’s pure madness.”

Davin Quist, training director at the Montana Carpenters Training Center, described how intensive apprenticeships are in an interview with MTFP. Over the course of four years, apprentices, who are paid for their work, spend an average of 160 hours a year in classroom settings learning their chosen trade. But the bulk of their time — 40 to 60 hours a week — is spent on the job under the supervision and mentorship of their journeyman. Quist sees a one-to-one ratio as ideal for guaranteeing a safe jobsite and a thorough educational experience for apprentices, and he said his initial reaction to DLI’s proposed ratio change was “shock.”

“There’s always changes that happen to apprenticeships and they usually go through committees and they’re talked about, the pros and cons,” Quist said. “This one is just kind of a shocker … and it really puts these young guys at risk.”

Bill Bently, executive manager for the Montana chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association, shared a list of similar concerns in a letter to Gianforte and Esau last month. Bently told MTFP he understands the workforce issues driving the proposal, but views the ratio increase as an “overreaction” that was “ramrodded down our throats” without collaboration with his organization and others.

“Yeah, we know there is a need for more people on the jobsite,” Bently said. “But you also have to be able to train the people on the jobsite, and with this new ratio, we really have concerns that you’ll be able to actually train people on the jobsite.”

Smith said he’s been puzzled by the reaction from organized labor. He questions why apprenticeship sponsors wouldn’t want more people learning trades, and believes the safety culture that Montana companies have worked to establish over the years will remain intact under the proposed new ratio.

“Yeah, we know there is a need for more people on the jobsite. But you also have to be able to train the people on the jobsite, and with this new ratio, we really have concerns that you’ll be able to actually train people on the jobsite.”

Bill Bently, executive manager for the Montana chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association

“Everything on a construction site is a safety concern,” Smith said. “Honestly, you know, just walking under a load of boards. This [reaction] to me is not focusing on the need of the future workforce, if that’s the real attitude about not wanting to expand it.”

But union leaders and supervisors aren’t the only Montanans with reservations about increasing the ratio. Bill Ryan, education coordinator at Dick Anderson Construction, heads the private company’s apprenticeship programming. Having supervised apprentices as a journeyman himself, he’s well-versed in the demands inherent to on-the-job education. It’s a relationship, he said, that requires a journeyman’s patience, confidence and comfort in his or her skills as a tradesperson and teacher. Ryan said the current ratio “doesn’t hurt” Dick Anderson Construction, and the proposed change is unlikely to, either.

“But we’re going to be very careful in making sure that we have the right amount of apprentices per journeyman and not overload that relationship,” Ryan said.

While he’s optimistic the change could help alleviate the state’s workforce shortage, Ryan also has doubts. For starters, he said, Montana and the country are currently facing a shortage of journeymen to take on supervisory roles, and it’s not always easy to find one with the right combination of skills to take an apprentice under their wing. DLI specifically mentioned increasing the number of journeymen in the state as a long-term benefit of the ratio change.

The other challenge Ryan noted is that the labor industry continues to contend with decades of stigmatization around trade-based education, making it difficult to find people interested in entering apprenticeships. That challenge is unlikely to change based solely on a ratio increase, he said.

“The stigma around apprenticeship and career technical education, around trades jobs, needs to change,” Ryan said. “The apprentice ratio is kind of a moot point if we can’t get young people to start considering these types of jobs, these types of careers.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...