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St. Pete apprenticeship requirements caused a project delay, but there’s a happy ending

A road resurfacing project lost three months, but City Council is working on a fix.

The city of St. Petersburg might have a case of the unintended consequences.

City Council four years ago approved an ordinance that requires companies bidding for city contracts to include Florida Department of Education certified apprenticeship programs in its workforce program.

The ordinance requires bidding companies to include apprenticeship participants in at least 10 percent of its project workforce for contracts exceeding $2 million.

The move was celebrated, and still is, as a win for expanding trade-related career opportunities in St. Pete. But it became a problem this year when a road resurfacing contract came due for renewal.

That $4 million contract with Venice-based Ajax Paving includes an in-house workforce training program, but its program isn’t certified through the Florida Department of Education. Under the original contract terms, Ajax met all of its requirements. But under a renewed contract, it didn’t.

City Council has since approved the renewal earlier this month without the official apprenticeship requirement, but the hiccup caused delays. Council was originally scheduled to approve it in early February. That put resurfacing projects off about three months.

The apprenticeship requirement also raised questions about how much flexibility contracts should include when dealing with blanket mandates.

“The reason they could not have an apprenticeship program is because resurfacing is not the kind of work that you have a lot of subcontractors for. Companies travel all over the state to do the work,” said Brejesh Prayman, director of the city’s engineering and capital improvements department.

Simply put, the type of work resurfacing crews do is lower-level labor. Further, the Florida Department of Education requires classroom education for apprenticeship program certification. The closest access to that is in Orlando.

“You’re asking people to drive an hour and a half without traffic as a day laborer,” Prayman said. “They would be working 10 to 12 hour shifts and then have to drive back to Orlando for class and then come back to work again.”

That sort of work doesn’t lend itself well to apprenticeship programs, Prayman said. Plus, there’s only a handful of companies who can perform the type of resurfacing work the city contracts each year and those other companies faced the same barriers Ajax was up against.

City Council approved the contract renewal with Ajax after significant back and forth. The company ultimately agreed to pursue Florida Department of Education apprenticeship certification, which gave council enough confidence to move forward with the contract.

“Without that certification the in-house training program doesn’t give workers a certificate of completion that they can take to the next employer or that they could put on a resume,” said St. Pete City Council member Charlie Gerdes.

This setback ended with a compromise that allowed city staff to move forward with its resurfacing project and continue with plans to repave city streets while also affording council the confidence local workers could still pursue living wage jobs in labor fields.

While there were delays, it also launched another conversation that council hopes will help avoid future problems with workforce requirements on city projects.

“We’re working on what’s called the responsible bidder ordinance,” Gerdes said. “That’s a certified vendor program where we set forth a list of factors that our construction contractors have to meet.”

Those include meeting Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, having a track record of not defaulting on contracts over the previous five years and including both apprenticeship programs and a minimum number of disadvantaged worker opportunities for people who might otherwise be considered hard to hire due to past criminal history.

Those details are still being ironed out. City Council began preliminary planning on that ordinance this week during a Public Services and Infrastructure committee meeting. The board continued that conversation until June 11 at the committee’s next meeting.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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