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Plan to tighten county apprenticeship rules draws concern

Erie County Democrats want to close a loophole they say lets some contractors on county projects get work without adequately training new apprentices.

They want to tighten requirements for apprenticeship programs on county-funded projects to require a graduation rate of at least 30 percent.

But what appears to be a minor change in an existing law has drawn concerns from business groups who think it would exclude many non-union contractors from county work.

The Associated Builders and Contractors claims the requirement will especially hurt small contractors. But backers of the change say apprenticeship programs are vital to developing a new supply of construction workers, especially with shortages in some building trades, and the county should ensure the programs are meeting expectations.

The County Legislature could vote on the proposal as soon as April 12 after holding a public hearing Wednesday night, said Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, who is one of three sponsors.

The county already has requirements for apprenticeship programs on county-funded projects of more than $250,000. Burke said he wants the county to close a "loophole" in the law by adding a graduation rate requirement of at least 30 percent for state-certified apprenticeship programs.

Some state-certified apprenticeship programs produce few graduates, have few participants to begin with, or have apprentices who languish in the program, he said.

"It's not to the spirit of why it's there," Burke said.

The graduation requirement would also help get young people "trained in skilled positions that we need," Burke said. "This is partially to boost our ability to invest in infrastructure and build the local economy."

But Brian Sampson, president of Associated Builders and Contractors' Empire State chapter, said the graduation requirements would be onerous for non-union contractors, given the ratio of journeymen to apprentices the state Labor Department mandates at firms.

A small non-union electrical contractor might have only one or two apprentices in its five-year program at once because of those ratio restrictions, Sampson said.

"What happens if that person leaves — their spouse gets transferred, or they just decide they don't want to be in?" he asked.

If the apprentice leaves, the contractor has to start over, he said. "That contractor is going to have a more difficult time meeting that 30 percent threshold."

In contrast, Sampson said, unionized contractors draw upon workers who come via unions' apprenticeship programs.

Burke said he felt the 30 percent graduate rate was achievable, and will ensure more people from the area get trained for jobs.

"If you're putting in the effort, which is what they should be doing, I think that is a reasonable standard," he said.

Sampson said 125 ABC member firms have done work with the county in the past three years. Of those, 32 had apprenticeship programs.

Sampson said ABC's concerns about the county law extend beyond the graduation rate requirement. The group believes the law's language could prevent non-union contractors from competing for work if they lack apprenticeship programs in specific trades that are related to a particular project.

The local law stands a good chance of passing. Burke and two other Democrats, April Baskin and John Bruso, are sponsoring it, and Democrats now control the Legislature majority.

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