Monday, October 3, 2022


It seems like everybody is yapping about the shortage of skilled tradesmen. One person told me that there were 1200 opening for pipe-fitters, electricians and tin-knockers in Jackson County, Michigan alone. It seems like every industrial building in Kent County is offering huge signing bonuses for those same trades.

Due to a general lack of understanding of "trades", the folks who think they are smart are completely unaware of one of the largest impediments to creating new skilled tradesmen, lack of universal reciprocity.


In the ancient guild system, an apprentice would study under a master for a set period of time with four years being fairly typical but with younger apprentices serving a longer stint.

When the apprentice had spent enough time and demonstrated enough skill, he became a journeyman and could travel (make journeys) and practice his craft without the master's oversight. He could move from village-to-village and cast bronze items or make pans or do fine leatherwork. In time, if he were dedicated, he too could become a master.

The economics of the system were that the first-year apprentice was little more than a set of muscles and an appetite, often more of a burden to the master-craftsman than a help. A fourth-year apprentice was quite profitable as he could almost do a journeyman's work but was basically working for room-and-board. Also during that last year or so, he was expected to fabricate the tools-of-his craft.

The modern system of licensing and creation of "journeymen" is a snake-pit of conflicting requirements in different states and municipalities and that lack of uniformity causes lack-of-reciprocity issues.

Impediments to interstate trade

The State of Michigan used to have its own requirements of what was legal to put into sausage. Things like chicken-lips and hog rectums, tripe and spleens were verboten. Other states filed suit claiming that Michigan's laws were anti-competitive and in violation of Federal Laws that govern interstate trade.

Federal courts invalidated Michigan sausage laws claiming Federal law supersedes State law*.

In another instance, Herbert Hoover standardized the dimensions of bricks in the United States during the 1920s, replacing hundreds and hundreds of local patterns with the now-standard 2"x4"x8" brick. That allowed builders to comparison shop between every brick kiln within economic shipping distance and be assured that the bricks would fit and the numbers required would not vary.

Treating a human-skill as a commodity like a brick or a sausage might seem demeaning, but consider that apprentices currently get even fewer rights than a sausage or a brick. They might enter a program in one state or city and learn...two years into it...that their journeyman's card will not cut the mustard in any other area. Basically, apprentices are tied to the geographic area just like a Russian serf.

Obviously, credentialed skilled trade unions like the hodgepodge, at least if they are in areas of high demand as the price they can command for their labor goes up. Companies like long apprentice programs because they pay less than they do for a journeyman and get a longer period of payback.

The cost-to-society is that demand for skilled trades varies at a faster tempo than they can be naturally created. Consider Florida right now. In a perfect world, every electrician, plumber and HVAC guy with a journeyman's card could travel to Florida and start repairing the damage from Hurricane Ian much like the linemen are doing.

Or, if Michigan or Indiana are opening factories and there is a surplus of electricians in Texas, they can travel up here and work for whatever period of time suits them.


The median for State licensing (by population) is used as the national benchmark for Journeyman status. If the program you apprenticed through equals or exceeds that bogey, then you are good to go anywhere in the nation.

Additional certifications can be earned for challenges that are truly unique to a state or region. For instance, additional certifications for some work done by pipe-fitters might be warranted in regions that have a history of earthquakes over Richter's 6.0 more frequently than once every 20 years. Tasks that did not have seismic requirements could still be done by the out-of-area PF at local PF rates.

Or an additional certification for an electrician might be warranted in legacy cities with many, archaic buildings with exceptional fire-risk.

If you came from a state or municipality that was below the median, your prior time-in-grade locally is counted toward the time requirements of the national standard and you would be allowed test-out any formal education requirements.

Military MOS in skilled trades would be given a similar fast-track if the de-mobbed soldier/sailor/marine/airman/coast-guard wished.

Other nations

It bears mention that other nations have had other approaches. In some nations (Australia, for instance) the rail system was nationalized and one of their missions was to churn out journeymen skilled trades.

This made a certain amount of sense because minting journeymen is not always profitable. Business goes up. Business goes down. Furthermore, a case can be made that a strong core of skilled trades is a national security interest. I am not advocating this approach but presenting it to show there are other solutions.

*One must wonder why California is allowed to have their own pollution and water-use standards.


  1. Seems Unions might be involved and some areas like mine are Right to Work where unions were mostly starved out when laws got changed that non-union folks stopped being forced to pay union dues for their certifications.

  2. I did 3 years carpenter apprentice in Houston then another 2 years in Detroit. I did notice corruption in the Union where a scab would just buy his journeyman card. Also the Houston union, the Representatives stole most of the pension funds, over $4 million, then made a fire in the records building so there is no retirement pay at all for me.
    Two of those guys got 4 years, out in 2 with good behavior.
    Local 998 to be specific.

  3. The one case of nepotism in hiring a foreman was amusing. Big guy all tatted wearing leather, rode a Harley in the Michigan winter onto the jobsite. The heavy metal 20 foot studs were for the outer "Windwalls" while the smaller lighter 12 foot metal studs were for the internal rooms. Well this IDIOT had them reversed in his mind, we spent weeks cutting apart the long heavy studs for internal walls while the light studs we scabbed together to make windwalls. Because this fool would not listen to anyone, it took 20 men 3 weeks to destroy the entire stock of metal studs, ALL the carpenters were fired and the fool went on to command the next crew. Every day going to work KNOWING it was a total f-up. I'm not ever going to forget that or stop laughing about it.

  4. Correction: 998 was Detroit. I forget the numbers on the now defunct Houston chapter. I like your blog here read it all the time. Houghton Lake area.

  5. Eliminate all 'state' licencing requirements. Private sector only, wether it's union or other private association based, the more organizational players the better. The market, the industries and insurance companies will sort out who is legit. The 'state' is a redundant, parasitic and politically motivated impediment to efficiency and productivity.

  6. The California emissions comment highlights the problem... New Yawk and Calfrutopia will create an onerous set of requirements, and won't allow reciprocity with other states requirements (aka California Emmisions standards set the tone for the federal level so as not to miss out on that market or have to create compliant models).
    Expecting the federal gubmint to fix that problem is a fools errand. They literally screwup everything they touch!
    Let the free market economy figure it out.
    States will set their own requirements, wages, etc., the marketplace will decide if its worth it for workers to meet the states requirements. Wages will go up and down as the market adjusts, workers migrate to where the best return is. Free market. Placing the thumb of government on the scales never ever, EVAAAAAR works.

  7. ERJ, I am somewhat surprised the trades (and I assume, the unions) do not insist harder on a set of single standards (perhaps they do; apologies if I am unaware). This would ultimately mean more employment for their members.

    1. The same reason drug dealers can't simply divvy up the neighborhoods/products and everyone make money.

  8. Very intelligent article.

    I worked as an apprentice electrician for over a year. The normal run was 2 years to leadman, 4 to journeyman (8000 hours experience and the state test). I made lead in 12 months (yes sir, right to work state). It was not difficult work. The one size fits none pace was maddening. Reminds me of the guild mentality in Starman Jones.

    Had the oil bust of the late 80's not happened, most probably, I'd be the owner of the old company I worked for. He had no heirs, and was looking for someone to take it over in five years or so. We got along pretty well, for a salty old WW2 soldier and a farm kid.

  9. My son is an Actuary. Requires math, statistics types of degree. You can go on to obtain 10 more levels. Usually insurance companies hire you but they require you to start working towards each level. More level equals more dollars. But there is an Actuarial Board that sets the standards for the entire country. Even numbered test given in Nov and odd number in May. Flunk and you can't take it for a year. Plus companies expect you to take and pass the second. The higher the number the more time they pay you to stay home and study. I think there's 7k actuary's now but only 1200 have all 10 degrees. You get lots of letters after your name, can work any where in the USA and the world. Son has had offer's from SA, Bahama's and Europe that I know of. Taking test 10 he had 6 months paid time off and he studied 10 hours a day and took one day a week off. All test are administered same day, same time across the country. You leave for potty break proctor goes with you. Very strictly controlled. Why can't something like this be used for skilled trades that typically take 3/4 years to complete. (I know unions) Ugh!

    1. Too many folks benefiting from a dysfunctional system.

      One of the entrenched political parties relies on donations from organized labor. One hand washes the other.

  10. here in canada if a journeyman gets his red ticket he is good everywhere in the country. my two brothers, a pipefitter and a millwright, both could work anywhere they wanted to in the country.

  11. What's wrong with OJT, (On the Job Training)?

    That's how I became a carpenter, 40 plus years ago. Started out as a helper carrying lumber, finding "sky hooks" and boxes of"toe nails." Gradually worked my way up the ladder working in both commercial and residential construction. on one job, even served as the engineer's helper, setting up transits, dumpy levels and eventually learning how to set up the computer aided layout instrument.

    After I became what would be called a journeyman, when one job gave out, throw tools in my truck and drive around looking for the next job. "You hiring?...Yes, when can you start?...I can start right now, got my tools in the truck." That's how the conversation usually went back in the 80's in Georgia and North Carolina.

  12. My home state of Wyoming only licenses electrical work at the state level, plumbing and other trades are done at the municipal level. If you hold a license from one of 16 states all you have to do is apply and pay $100 or one of 3 states $200 for a Wyoming license. One thing I find humorous is that we require licensing for data-com cabling while many other states do not. We have many folks that come out of Colorado and other states to work on large construction projects. Some guys will hold licensure in multiple states so that they can work in a more areas of the country. It is curious that more states don’t offer reciprocity to at least neighboring states, many do but it looks like a bunch don’t. Good luck finding a local electrician for anything minor.

    1. In my last job before retirement, I was a site superintendent for a company that was licensed in 44 states as a general contractor. Our main electrical/low voltage contractor was licensed in around 35 states.

      In most code jurisdictions, I could stand inspections for any and all trades, although our company policy was that each trade had to have a representative present for specific inspections. Some jurisdictions, however, required that for electrical inspections, a licensed journeyman or master electrician had to be present for any and all inspections pertaining to their trade, with a copy of their license in hand to show the inspector. Telling the inspector it was in the safe at company HQ halfway across the country wasn't an option. Our electrical contractor company president found out the hard way when he came to stand for an inspection. He had to have a photocopy of his license faxed to our job location, plus pay a reinspection fee.

  13. This does not always work even within a company. Our Union contract stated that a job vacancy at one Compressor station could be filled by an employee from any of the 4 manned stations in our gas transmission system. Yet it was the biggest union supporter that wanted us to ignore the contract. I only knew of one guy that transferred that way and we were glad to be rid of him.


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