By Zach Gorchow/Bridge Magazine contributor
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.