Michigan has its own apprentice drama

A fight is likely coming soon at the Capitol over how many fully qualified electricians must be present during electrical work when apprentices also are on hand.

In 2008, the state began enforcing a requirement in its basic law governing the electrical industry, the Electrical Administrative Act, mandating that one fully qualified electrician be present at a job site for each apprentice at the site. That requirement became law in 1992 after several electricians suffered injuries and some died after a series of accidents focused attention on safety standards. However, a court injunction against enforcing it existed until 2008. (The one exception to that rule is on residential construction, where there can be two apprentices for every fully qualified electrician.)

Now as the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder reviews the state’s entire regulatory structure, businesses have targeted this newly enforced regulation as extremely costly and unnecessary. And state officials say it has caused problems in the profession because apprentices who began training under the old requirements now have to meet a new set of requirements to get their state license, causing confusion.

“The 1-to-1 is an extreme requirement here,” said Liz Smalley, an administrative law specialist with the state’s Office of Regulatory Reinvention, which is heading up the review of state regulations. “I think there’s still plenty of room here to allow for safety without having such burdens placed to meet the requirements.”

Smalley said the new ratio would not be radically larger, describing the proposal as a “relaxing” of the requirement.

The move would require legislation, and it appears there likely will be a fight over it once it is introduced.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58, which covers six counties in Southeast Michigan, including Macomb, Oakland and Wayne, supports the 1-to-1 ratio, said Kenith Briggs, the union’s business representative.

Most apprentices train for five years to obtain the required 8,000 hours of on-the-job training needed for a state license. They also must receive 1,200 hours of classroom training.

If two or more apprentices can be at a job site for each fully qualified electrician, then there’s the potential for unsupervised installations, Briggs said. That’s a danger not only for the electricians, but the customers who will use the electrical equipment and infrastructure installed in their house or business.

“The 1-to-1 is a decent and good minimum standard,” Briggs said. “Construction by its very nature can be a very dangerous industry.”

Andy Such, director of environmental and regulatory policy for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said MMA is pushing for an end to the requirement that any business employing a licensed electrician must then become a licensed electrical contractor. The state requires licensed electrical contractors to run an apprenticeship program. Ending the requirement would enable manufacturers to adopt the same 2-to-1 ratio of apprentices to electricians that applies to residential electrical jobs.

“It’s an expense they don’t need,” Such said. “If your business is not electrical contracting, then there’s no reason to become an electrical contractor licensed by the state of Michigan. They’re manufacturers, they’re not electrical contractors.”

Briggs quibbled with the notion that the lifting of the injunction has created confusion in the electrical field about the professional requirements to obtain a license. Electrical contractors handle training for apprentices, and any competent contractor knows what the training requirements are, he said.

But Briggs acknowledged there would be cost savings with a change in the ratio. On government jobs in Wayne County, the wage paid under the state’s prevailing wage law to electricians is $56 an hour, a figure that also includes the cost of benefits, he said. Apprentices typically make half that amount of money.

But that savings in cost would come at the price of safety, he said.

“I wouldn’t want to turn someone loose in your house that could do an installation that could kill you or your family,” he said.

Zach Gorchow is editor of the Gongwer News Service in Lansing. Gorchow previously worked as a reporter for Gongwer and at the Detroit Free Press before becoming the news service's editor. He is a graduate of Michigan State University.

Editor's note: This story was produced in a collaboration between Bridge Magazine and the Gongwer News Service.

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Tue, 04/17/2012 - 9:54am
Another great idea from those fine folks who think it is a good idea to saddle all of us with the costs of treating the multi-million dollar injuries that a bunch of under-insured, non-helmet wearing motorcycles are going to be generating. I'd rather pay up front for electrical "insurance." Inadequate supervision of electrical installations will lead to fires, costly property damage, and deaths. Will we all be paying more for fire insurance for our homes and businesses, so that a few whiners can reduce their short term costs? This is privatizing a benefit, and socializing the costs just like that idiot helmet law that the Governor was cowardly enough to sign.
Tue, 04/17/2012 - 10:44am
The purpose of on the job training in apprenticeship is for the apprentice to learn under the watchful eye of the master craftsman. For the safety of all concerned a one to one ration should be considered a maximum. There are many situations when more than one journey level worker needs to be present. When this ratio is exceeded there is great potential for unsupervised work to happen. In the electrical industry electricity is a silent deadly killer, you can’t hear it, see it, or smell it. Most accidents happen with young unsupervised workers, taking chances trying to impress their boss. For some an apprentice is hired only for cheap disposable labor whose only concern is their only bottom line. Thank God and our State Legislator that we still have laws protecting our youth.
Ron Bellaire
Tue, 04/17/2012 - 5:48pm
After a five year apprenticeship I felt I was barely qualified to work alone 25 years later I realize how correct I was. The law industry does not let interns represent clients in court, and I do not feel qualified to tell them they are wrong. Maybe they should stick to their own specialty.
Jim Struble
Wed, 04/18/2012 - 9:10am
Anyone who has worked in the electrical trade and even a union business representitive knows that the most of electrical construction is performed while deenrgized. Work on energized sytems and equipment must be performed by trained and qualified personnel. There is a broad range of tasks in electrical construction from digging trenches to cutting holes in concrete walls and floors to installing pipe for later installation of cable not invlolving contact with wire or energized circuits. In fact as much or more labor goes into mechanical asembly and preparing a job for installation of wire and cable than for the actual connection of circuits in industrial and commercial projects. The important training needed to acquire the practice, knowledge and skills to perform electrical work safely and properly is best delivered through apprenticeship. As Mr Briggs stated "Electrical contractors handle training for apprentices, and any competent contractor knows what the training requirements are". Electrical contractors are responsible for training, are licensed and responsible for the quality and safety of their installations and are responsible for the safety of their workmen. In many situations the 1:1 ratio is unnecessary and impractical, in many situations one to one is called for.
Wed, 04/18/2012 - 12:03pm
Electrical work, as with all the building trades (or (life in general) has limited aspects and times when great care and supervision is necessary but also has large amounts of work that is repetitive and basic and virtually no supervision is/should be needed. This rule is union feather bedding at it's finest. I love how the political left at one moment frets about the lack of affordable housing then turns around a pushes through rules like this. No concept of cause and effect.
Wed, 04/18/2012 - 5:41pm
Lets see, the journeyman or master electrician gets the kids started then goes to the bar for three hours or sits in the truck and works his side jobs while getting paid to baby-sit the ditch digging or conduit hanging crew. What's wrong with this picture? Many of these tasks are performance driven. Get the conduit in the right place, mount the boxes, even pulling the wire. Once the conductors are in place the skill comes in in making the proper connections. If this oversight was so important, we wouldn't need an electrical inspector to sign off on every job.