Following a disastrous legislative hearing where legislators, unionized labor, non-union labor and even the federal government trashed a proposed trainee program, the state today announced it’s going back to the drawing board.
The proposed regulations, which included the unpopular proposed trainee program, have been officially suspended by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and Commissioner Dr. Tamika Ledbetter has called for the department to stakeholder meetings, which were not held in the formation of the regulations.
“My goal is to ensure that Alaskans are trained and prepared to participate in this economy,” Ledbetter said. “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.”
The statement didn’t address claims that the administration had altered the public comment report to downplay the nearly unanimous opposition to the changes.
The regulations would have created an alternative pathway become a licensed plumber or electrician in Alaska that would have done away with the federal oversight and simply called for 12,000 hours of on-the-job experience. Deputy Commissioner Grey Mitchell defended the proposal, saying it did nothing to the existing apprenticeship program (which is why he defended labelling many critical comments as “unclear”).
Legislators didn’t buy his explanation.
“You’re creating a pathway around apprenticeship that requires little to no documentation, little to no standards. That, I think, sounds like a workaround the apprenticeship,” said House Labor and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage. “You’re saying, ‘We’re not gonna disallow apprenticeship, we’re just going to create something that’s REALLY easy to do that doesn’t have the kind of standards that are required by an apprenticeship.’ …. It’s a mischaracterization of the comments.”
Legislators called it “inconceivable” that the administration hadn’t seriously engaged anyone affected by the proposed regulations.
The proposed alternative pathway faced backlash from the trade industry as well as the federal regulator. They said it would undermine the federally regulated apprenticeship program because without oversight the 12,000 hours of on-the-job training could be as meaningless as sweeping the floors, shoveling gravel and assembling PVC pipe.
“The registered apprenticeship system produces highly skilled and qualified license holders for Alaska with significant economic and social benefits. The proposed 12,000-hour pathway to licensing is not a training program. It does not level the playing field as stated by Mr. Mitchell,” John Hakala, the director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Alaska Office of Apprenticeship, told the House committee. “That’s another area where the 12,000-hour just scares the heck out of me. You’re not just going to get proper training in the 12,000-hour OJT program.”
Hakala also noted that the trainee program would carry far less value for people as it wouldn’t require step increases in pay and would lead to a lower lifetime earning potential. People who go through the apprenticeship, he said, earn on average $300,000 more during the lifetime of their career than those who find other alternative pathways to licensure.
Deborah Kelly, the statewide training director for the IBEW’s apprenticeship program, also opposed the regulations. As a journeyman lineman, Kelly was able to voice specific concerns about how an unregulated trainee program would come up far short of preparing people to be safe workers.
She defended the apprenticeship program, noting that it’s intended to give apprentice linemen the necessary experience in several different fields to be safe not just for themselves, but for their coworkers and the public.
“This is a public safety statute. These are licensed trades because poor training can cause fires, carbon monoxide poisoning, contaminated drinking water and electrocutions,” she said. “The proposal results in no training standard. Period. They keep calling this an alternate, OJT pathway but there’s no expectation or requirement of on-the-job training. It replaces all the things we just saw of what represents comprehensive training with nothing. An employer can, and will, hire somebody as a grunt doing the easiest parts of those trades.”
Even the Alaska chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, which doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with unions, panned the regulations.
“We have no reason to believe that the department is trying undermine the safety or create an untrained licensed workforce, nevertheless we are concerned that could be the result,” said Amy Nibert, the president and CEO of ABC-Alaska.
Nibert added that the state never engaged with it on the regulations.
“We believe the regulations should be withdrawn and the department engage stakeholders to work on any problems,” she said. “If the department would engage stakeholders, we would likely find an agreement to most of the regulations proposed.”
State Affairs Committee Labor and Commerce Committee was scheduled to hold a second hearing on the regulations later today. That meeting has been canceled.