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Apprentice law needs more care Measure can benefit all groups if they have full input and it's written sensibly

As Erie County legislators go back to the drawing boards before pushing again for a local law demanding apprentice programs for any construction firm seeking work from the county, they need to remember two things.

First, don't pass any form of that law that costs the county more money to get work done. And prove that, to taxpayers legitimately concerned that anything decreasing competition by sidelining potential players would hike costs.

Second, don't cost local construction workers -- union or non-union -- jobs by setting standards that experienced workers can't meet easily.

Local Law No. 1, the Legislature's first bite at this apple, was a badly written attempt to impose an apprenticeship requirement for county construction contracts. It would have ruled out not only the small non-union shops that were the designed beneficiaries, but also union workers who were in trades or unions without state-licensed apprenticeship programs, or were skilled and experienced journeymen who had learned their trade on the job and are now far more qualified to teach rather than be apprentices. The other apparent focus was out-of-town contractors who use illegal immigrant labor; but that's an issue coming up for Congress.

Any second bite at this apple should consider common-sense options: grandfathering in skilled workers, for instance. Other New York governments with this type of law set parameters so that only large-scale contracts trigger the apprenticeship requirement. They recognize the absurdity of setting standards that can't be met by one-on-one mentored informal apprenticeships, in the smaller skilled trades. Even then, governments with this kind of legislation lost rounds in court.

The basic argument of proponents of this legislation is that we need skills training to keep our young people here and working. But by driving up county costs, lawmakers also encourage the flight of people and jobs from this area. This law risks training youth for jobs that won't exist, or exist only because more skilled workers unable to meet contract requirements gave up and moved. If this Legislature -- and returning it to committee last week shows that some majority members get it -- must doctor the way the county does business, it should remember the first law for physicians: Do no harm.

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