More than a year ago, the Erie County Legislature passed an apprenticeship law. In a nutshell, the law requires any contractor applying for county work exceeding $250,000 to provide an apprenticeship program approved by the New York State Department of Labor.
The law was attacked by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and County Executive Joel Giambra, who vetoed it. The Legislature overrode the veto. But the law has again become a "whipping boy," this time at the hands of County Executive-elect Christopher Collins. He says his top priority will be to repeal the law.
Opponents of the law assert it benefits unions at the expense of non-union contractors. And they contend that by eliminating these contractors from the bid process, the costs of public projects will rise. But are these claims true?
Not really. Some 75 percent of contractors with approved apprenticeship programs are non-union. Furthermore, there are enormous benefits to county taxpayers when the county uses contractors with qualified apprentices.
First, apprentices save taxpayers money because apprentices working for county contractors are paid 40 percent to 50 percent of journey worker wages.
Second, apprentices provide county taxpayers with a professional work force. As the New York State Department of Labor points out, "apprentices become skilled craft workers, flexible and productive, who are dedicated to the industry and the specific employer." A sign of this dedication is that many contractors report less turnover among apprentices than non-apprenticed employees.
Third, contractors with workers in approved apprentice programs have a safer work force. This translates into lower workers' compensation costs and lawsuits associated with workplace injuries and fatalities, indirectly benefiting county taxpayers. One indicator of this is the fact that of the 31 Western New York construction fatalities that have occurred since 2003, 77 percent involved non-union contractors.
Fourth, contractors with apprenticeship programs ultimately benefit county taxpayers by providing a stable career-oriented work force. When workers become journeymen, they enjoy good-paying jobs enabling them to fully contribute to the county's tax base.
To fully appreciate Western New York's apprenticeship programs and the professionals they produce, we need only to cite one recent project.
Nearly 200 windmills have been erected in this region. Only qualified apprentices and skilled operating engineers and ironworkers erected the 300-foot towers and moved the 100-foot blades and huge generators on top of those towers, often in high winds.
Production schedules were met and there was not one fatality or serious injury. Erie County residents deserve the same level of competence and performance on public projects supported by our tax dollars.
Roger A. Cook is executive director of the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health.