Missoula closer to apprenticeship program on city construction jobs

Missoula City Council member Gwen Jones, right, and fellow council member Heather Harp (not pictured), have introduced a resolution to give more opportunities to young apprentices during city construction projects. (Missoula Current file photo)

Members of the Missoula City Council passed a resolution Wednesday that would provide more opportunities for young apprentices to “earn while they learn” during city construction projects.

City councilors Heather Harp and Gwen Jones created a plan that provides a bidding preference to contractors using a State of Montana Registered Apprentice Program for city of Missoula construction projects totaling $500,000 or more.

The plan is supposed to promote job training, improve the skills of the workforce, and get younger people interested in the benefits of a job in skilled labor.

In the United States, only about 5 percent of youths enroll in apprenticeships.

Jones pointed out that many young people feel pressured to go to college and get a degree, when in reality, it isn’t the right path for everyone.

“There’s another school of thought that this next generation values more of making an impact then necessarily making a lot of money,” Jones said. “So all of these conversations go back to this cultural shift that has occurred, when the bottom line is that working the trades, you can earn a good living, provide for your family and have an impact.”

Contractors that use apprentices for at least 10 percent of the total labor hours on construction projects owned by the city of Missoula will be given a 5 percent preference in the bidding process.

The total value of the preference wouldn’t exceed $100,000.

For example, a low bid could be at $1 million, and a second contractor bid could be $1,050,000. The second contractor would be awarded the bid if it has a registered apprenticeship program.

“With the resolution, we don’t reduce the bid, it’s just a preference. So we don’t reduce the contract amount,” said city clerk Marty Rehbein. “So if you bid $1,050,000 and the second bid that’s not in preference is $1 million, we’re going to award the bid to the company that bid $1,050,000 at that contract price.”

Jones said that Missoula College is offering more skilled labor apprenticeship programs, but having companies take part in apprenticeships will be helpful.

“I think our goal at this point is to get this resolution through, give it a year, see what the data is from it, see how it works, see if there are unintended consequences, and then revise as necessary,” Jones said.

Co-owner of Shadow Asphalt Jeremy Ogilvie didn’t support the resolution. Putting inexperienced people in the field is dangerous, he said, and while having an apprenticeship program isn’t mandatory, the competition among contractors would force his company to participate.

“It’s a 10-man crew, working as one,” he said. “Just like a football team, everyone has to have their role and know when to do it and how to do it or it doesn’t work. Throwing a couple high school kids out there at the wong time just means that my guys are responsible for the safety of other people that might not understand how to work around heavy equipment.”

Having to have 10 percent of the labor work done by apprentices may also mean turning away experienced workers to meet the program requirements.

Ogilevie said that his company is already training about eight young workers to load trucks, break concrete, and on other aspects of the job that don’t involve a high skillset. They have to work up to that point, he said.

“There’s going to be a lot of unintended consequences with managing it and expenses on a small business,” Ogilvie said. “We will try to follow the rules, we will become certified if we have to, but I think it’s not going to have the outcome that you want.”

Derek Hitt with the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters said that the resolution is a good idea.

“This is a labor issue,” Hitt said. “And the best part about this is, most apprentices, about 60 percent stay with the company that they started their apprenticeship with, and 60 percent of those guys stay in Missoula working for those companies.”

There’s a lack of young people in the labor workforce, and while there are many ways to approach the issue, the resolution is one that the council, and some contractors, are willing to try.

“I don’t think this is the magic wand that solves this problem, but I think it’s a constructive small piece to start nudging some things forward,” Jones said. “And really there’s a much bigger community-wide conversation that’s already started to happen that I think is, frankly, more impactful, and that needs to be continued on all sides. This is what we have in our toolbox to use.”

Contact reporter Mari Hall via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.