Staffing the proper ratio of journeymen to apprentices can be tricky, especially for large contracting companies. In the U.S., there are really no hard-and-fast rules, so it has to be sorted out in labor-negotiated agreements, often job by job with a ratio that can be something like four journeymen to every one apprentice. In Canada, ratios vary from province to province; though, there is an effort to enforce 4:1 ratios in Ontario. And, there are calls for the federal government (government of Canada) to push for a 1:1 ratio.

The debate offers many arguments, including:

• Since skilled journeymen cost the company more in hourly wages, why not hire more apprentices to save money?

• But, basically, apprentices are not as well trained as journeymen, so couldn’t it end up costing more per job if things go slower with a less skilled worker?

• So why not train the apprentices?

• But, who’s going to do the training — the contractor, the vo-tech schools, or the apprenticeship programs offered by unions?

• But, does the contractor have the time and resources to do training, and are there enough vo-tech schools and apprentice programs to train a big influx of apprentices if the ratio moves to 1:1?

• And, what about ongoing journeymen training?

Oh, Canada

The jump-start for the topic came when the C.D. Howe Institute, a Canadian think tank, issued a commentary titled, “Access Denied: The Effect of Apprenticeship Restrictions in Skilled Trades.”

The report, which takes a pro-1:1-ratio position, starts with the contention that “Canadian employers, including those in HVACR, report difficulty in finding enough sufficiently skilled workers to fill vacant trade positions.”

The report blames this shortage on “provincial regulations that limit the number of apprentices firms may hire.” It goes on to say, “If provinces want more workers in the trades, they should allow firms to hire more apprentices.”

Lawrence Slaney, UA special representation in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, noted, at this time, “The four-to-one ratio is only in some provinces. Many have a two-to-one ratio and several have a one-to-one. However, only a few provinces, such as Ontario and Alberta, have mandated ratios that are enforced by government. The federal government does not mandate apprentice ratios. It is decided by the provincial apprenticeship boards.”

Nick Reggi, HVAC program coordinator for Humber College’s school of applied technology in Toronto, takes no position in the provinces’ debate, but acknowledged a greater open-door policy regarding apprentices would mean “the number of students in colleges would increase.” He further questioned: “Would the college system be able to handle that?”

As the country attempts to sort out the ratios, the skills training issue persists, said D. Brian Baker, owner, Custom Vac Ltd., Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. “We have a serious skills shortage in the trades. Many just don’t fully understand and appreciate the barriers and responsibilities we in the trades carry each day. Our industries are spending considerable amounts of time and money to promote and attempt to bring about positive changes that will result in a more vibrant workforce and minimize the seriousness of the skilled-worker shortages we face.”

Back in the USA

In the U.S., “there are no government regulations or mandates” in term of ratios, said John McNerney, general counsel of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA). “It is left to the collective bargaining between the employer and specific union.”

The MCAA and the United Association (UA) have collectively agreed to “encourage local [agreements] to achieve a 4:1 ratio as a sound workforce development and project productivity goal,” he said. While that varies, it is “close to the norm,” he added.

The training is addressed, he said, with a separate collective bargaining agreement and joint training trust that provides sites for apprenticeship training that are privately run and administered. He also said that journeymen and apprentices are welcome to avail themselves of any additional journeyman-upgraded training offered by the local joint apprenticeship’s training program.

That comment was echoed by Rich Benkowski, training specialist for the UA. “Each local negotiates with its respective MCAA for the best opportunities as determined by the current man-power needs in each respective market.”

Regardless of how the negotiated ratios work out, the goal is to have apprentices transition into journeymen.

As recently as September 2014, Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, noted the value of union apprenticeship programs during a Congressional Black Caucus Conference. He said his organization is “closely working with construction owners (both public and private), contractors, state and local government officials, and national and local community groups to leverage these construction investments in order to build structured pathways of career training and education for women, minorities, teenagers, and transitioning military veterans.”

Whatever the ratio between journeymen and apprentices might be, and however that ratio is determined, the one constant is the need for adequate training for all HVACR service personnel working on a job site. This is why unions have set up training centers and why colleges and vo-tech schools strive to have the latest equipment and space for students. And, it’s why contractors also need to continue encouraging service employees to look at additional ongoing education offerings such as those provided by manufacturers, supply houses, and trade associations.

Publication date: 3/2/2015

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