The politics are tangled when it comes to the Trump administration’s initial decision—which still could change—not to include construction in its proposed apprenticeship rule revision.
The proposal, for which the comment period that ended on Aug. 26 has generated more than 325,000 comments pro and con, now leaves the industry out of a planned U.S. Labor Dept. effort to expand apprentice programs in sectors such as health care and information technology by allowing private entities to manage the registration process typically carried out by federal and state agencies.
The proposed change has split the industry. Building trades unions strongly back the construction exemption, as do some contractor groups such as the National Electrical Contractors Association, that have relationships with unions, including joint apprenticeship programs.
The Associated Builders and Contractors opposes the exemption. The Associated General Contractors favors an equal playing field, funding, rigor and benefits for all construction apprenticeship programs, a spokesman says.
If construction apprentice programs came under the proposal, they would still have to meet quality standards and could work with colleges using federal grants to deliver training. But programs would resemble those now carried out by open-shop employers, where unions have no role.
Including construction in the proposed plan could further accelerate the shrinking of the union segment by boosting open-shop training with more government support.
That could deliver another blow to a sector whose craft workers and employers have bargained hard for wage rates and training benefits—with impacts and sacrifices for both—and risk further their tenuous grip on middle-class security.
I have a close family member who works in union construction after years employed by a nonunion contractor. He developed important skills in the open-shop environment, but it wasn’t until he joined a union that his quality of life improved.
Open-shop employers are not underdogs anymore.
They battled their way against once-formidable union rivals, starting in 1960, when the Associated Builders and Contractors formed an apprenticeship committee in Baltimore’s then-new local chapter.
Building trades and sympathetic government officials fought it, but the program finally was registered with the Labor Dept. two years later. Open-shop training has flourished since then. ABC’s Pelican chapter, representing parts of Louisiana, alone trains more than 2,000 students per year.
A recent article on the website of the National Center for Construction Education and Research, a provider of craft instruction materials used extensively for open-shop trainers and also by some unions, explains that much training is done without government registration.
It describes apprentices who out-earn college-educated peers. And it points to government bureaucracy and red tape that have hindered the ability to grow construction apprentice programs.
The article also points out that nonregistered programs follow the government standard by meeting Labor Dept. classroom-hour and competency mandates.
The only difference between registered and most nonregistered programs, says the article, is not having to endure the registration process and regulations, which include 23 specific requirements in addition to equal employment opportunity rules.
Avoiding 'Extra Hoops'
Many firms have figured out how to offer apprenticeship training programs without those “extra hoops,” the article says.
Higher-paying union jobs can add to construction costs, but unions also set the bar high on quality training at a time when complex projects require more knowledge and productivity from all participants.
That training, through union apprenticeship, also is critical to slow a decline in standard of living that would knock more workers down the rungs of the middle class—or out of it completely.
Under the proposal, apprentices would be paid minimum wage, instead of collectively bargained higher rates.
As organized labor has been forced to make concessions in markets, the lines between union and nonunion employment have blurred.
Just look at concessions made by some New York area building trades unions, where multiple tiers of employment now essentially allow open-shop workers to work under the union umbrella. Only prevailing wage laws in public works stand in the way of even deeper union market loss.
Some industry employers won’t be happy until workers have no collective voice at all. Maybe those that must expand their craft ranks can make a case for apprenticeship vs. college without pointing out the higher level of union pay and benefits. Let them try.
As final proposal writers consider the many comments expressing opposite points of view on the apprenticeship issue, they need to realize that weakening what union programs have long delivered while boosting already-successful open-shop employer training is not the way to win the war for talent.
Deputy Editor Richard Korman edits the ENR Viewpoint section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org