News-Miner opinion: It’s potentially dicey when a government body tries to impose conditions on how it spends public money with the private sector. That’s just what is happening with a proposed Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly ordinance that would require that winning bids for some borough construction projects include a certain percentage of labor hours from apprentices.
Opposition to the proposal by Borough Assemblywomen Mindy O’Neall and Marna Sanford was swift and became testy at last week’s assembly meeting. The measure was postponed to a special meeting Tuesday.
The proposal from the two assembly members underwent two amendments at Thursday’s contentious meeting. The two changes include raising to $750,000 from $300,000 the contract dollar amount that would trigger the apprenticeship requirement and modifying the total percentage of labor hours that must go to apprentices to a minimum of 12% in contracts for the current fiscal year and 15% for subsequent fiscal years.
The idea behind the proposal is solid. It’s long been held that Alaska needs to continually develop its workforce. In 2018, during the administration of Gov. Bill Walker, then-Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas said she had been hearing from union leaders that they were starting to run out of skilled workers.
Here in Fairbanks, that thought is expressed well in the proposed ordinance, which states that, “A well-trained construction trades workforce is crucial to the economic stability and future of the Borough” and “The efficient and economical construction of public works projects will be hindered if there is not an ample supply of well-trained construction workers.”
The Fairbanks borough has millions of dollars of infrastructure and maintenance needs, as has been well-established through the Capital Improvement Program initiated by Mayor Bryce Ward, with heavy involvement by the public and approved by the Borough Assembly.
Mayor Ward, however, has put forward a proposed substitute ordinance that seems more appropriate — assuming its demonstrated that we even need such an ordinance at all.
The mayor’s proposal raises the apprenticeship provision trigger to $5 million but also allows for the requirement on those projects to be waived if the requirement “would be detrimental to the financial position of the borough or the project ...” He also proposed a lower apprentice percentage requirement on projects that would fall within his more-limited project cost range.
That’s smart thinking by the mayor — again, assuming such an ordinance is even necessary.
Making sure we have enough locally trained workers in the years ahead is indeed an important subject. But is requiring a percentage of apprenticeships the way to go? Doing so would potentially exclude some contractors from competing for borough contracts. How is that fair to them?
Businesses should want to participate in apprenticeship programs of their own accord, recognizing the benefits. Having an apprenticeship program can be a selling point when pursuing contracts, whether public or private.
What does participating in an apprenticeship program do for an employer?
Here are just a few of the many benefits listed by the U.S. Department of Labor: enhanced employee retention, a reliable pipeline of qualified workers, a systematic approach to training.
The University of Alaska is involved in workforce development, working in conjunction with the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Department of Education and Early Development. Those three are working with industry representatives to ensure Alaska, including Fairbanks, will have the skilled workers it needs.
We shouldn’t be trying to meet our future workforce needs through unfair local government action. Our local leaders, if they want to continue pursuing this subject, should look for a better way.