Bill would change employment laws for electricians

Posted March 06, 2012, at 6:26 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would seek to change rules concerning the number of apprentices and helpers that experienced electricians may supervise drew both praise and criticism at a public hearing Tuesday.

The bill, proponents said, is aimed at stemming what many see as a looming shortage of skilled electricians in the state — a problem facing many skilled trades — and would get more people into the training pipeline. Opponents, however, cast the bill as an attempt to flood the market with cheap labor.

LD 1833 would allow a journeyman or master electrician to supervise two apprentices or helpers if they are enrolled in or have completed a training program. Currently, they are allowed to supervise only one.

The bill also would remove the $96 fee required for students to get a helper’s license to enroll in a high school electrical program. There was little debate on this provision at a public hearing in the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. Those testifying noted that the $96 fee was a deterrent for students who want to check out a possible career as an electrician. Under the proposal, they only would have to pay that fee if they decided to work in a nonstudent capacity — during the summer, for example.

But the proposal to change the ratio of apprentices or helpers to experienced workers drew some debate.

“By changing this ratio, we would effectively be putting master and journeyman electricians out of work,” said Don Berry, president of the Maine AFL-CIO and a master electrician. “This bill, like many others in this session, attacks workers at a time the economy is at its worst.”

Under questioning by State Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, Berry explained that he was concerned the bill would allow companies to use more lower-paid electricians to fill needs, flooding the market with cheap labor.

Allan Shepard, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Maine, asked what the ratio of helpers and apprentices to more experienced electricians had to do with boosting enrollment in training programs.

“It is nothing more than a veiled attempt to dilute the standards of the workplace and an assault on working electricians,” he said.

James Cote, president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine, said basic demographics were leading the profession to problems. He cited federal statistics suggesting that employment of electricians should grow by 12 percent between 2008 and 2018, largely due to increased electrical needs. At the same time, he said, Maine’s work force is getting older. Nearly 40 percent of Maine’s licensed master and journeyman electricians are 55 years old or older.

“The Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine believe that one of the most effective ways we can increase the pool of qualified electricians is if we change public policy to encourage more helpers and apprentices to work under journeyman and master electricians,” he said. “We also believe it is essential that we tie this ratio change to a policy that ensures these ‘electrician-elects’ will climb the education ladder and move on to become journeyman and master electricians.”

Michael Bennett, vice president of health, safety, environmental and human services at Cianbro Corp., argued that increasing the ratio would not create a safety issue for apprentice and helper electricians working under the supervision of a more experienced tradesman.

“Regardless of the ratio, no one should ever be placed into a situation where they are not competent to perform the work, period,” he said.

Bennett, responding to a question from Tuttle, said Cianbro currently is having difficulties finding electricians to hire in Maine.

The committee is expected to hold a work session on the bill on Thursday.

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