The Dept. of Labor's inbox has been swamped by more than 300,000 comments—the vast majority from construction workers, according to a top union official—weighing in on the department’s proposal to revamp the federal program for apprenticeships.

With the Aug. 26 deadline for submitting formal comments now past, DOL officials will pore over the many filings—325,678 in all, according to—and decide whether to make any changes in the version that was proposed and published on June 25 in the Federal Register.­ [View June 26 ENR story here.]

The regulation would apply to a broad range of industries. But for construction, the critical issue is a provision to exempt the industry—“at least initially,” DOL says—from a key element of the overall apprenticeship plan.

That element is the creation of Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs) that would take over much of the standard-setting now done by DOL and state agencies.

The proposal would let industry groups, associations, schools, states, localities, unions and other organizations to submit applications to DOL to become Standards Recognition Entities (SREs).

Those SREs would set standards for IRAP training and curricula in specific industries or business sectors. SREs would be subject to oversight from the Dept. of Labor.

At present, DOL registers apprentices and apprenticeship programs itself or through state agencies.

DOL said it would exempt construction and the military from that industry program because those sectors already have extensive apprenticeship programs. Construction has by far the largest number of registered apprentices, averaging 144,000 per year over the past five years, DOL says. That represents about 48% of all registered apprentices, it adds.

Construction unions support exemption

The exemption provision has split the construction industry. The building trades unions strongly support the exemption. They also want DOL to go a step further and make the exemption permanent.

Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU), said in an Aug. 27 statement that of the comments filed with DOL, nearly 325,000 supported the unions' position.

Those workers' comments, McGarvey said, show that "construction workers don't want the federal government to cut wages and destroy jobs in a dangerous economic experiment."

NABTU said in its comments submitted to DOL that the new program "should not be applied to our industry, where poor training can endanger lives and undermine the quality of the industry and where a robust and well-proven system already exists."

The unions added that the proposed regulations do not require "rigorous in-class and on-the-job training," ensure "effective oversight [or] extensive safety training," don't protect apprentices against "exploitative wages" or ensure they will have "a recognized level of proficiency in their trade when they complete the program."

Contractor groups that have relationships with the building trades—for example through joint labor-management apprenticeship and training programs—agree that the exemption should remain. Some also concur that it should be made permanent.

Among the pro-exemption groups are the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), Mechanical Contractors Association of America and Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors of North America.

ABC, AGC comments

The Associated Builders and Contractors, on the other hand, wants to see the construction exemption removed. ABC said in its comments to DOL, “ABC believes the exclusion of any industry from a nationally recognized apprenticeship program, whether initially or permanently, would be an impediment to innovation and industry advancements in workforce development and safety.”

ABC also said that excluding construction from the envisioned new program “is neither authorized nor required by the statutory and regulatory authority cited in the proposed rule.”

It added, “American needs an all-hands-on-deck effort from all industries, including construction most of all, to close America’s skills gap and meet the industry demands of a growing economy.”

The Associated General Contractors of America in its comments argued for making a "level playing field" among types of construction apprenticeship programs.

AGC told DOL, "Expanding all training opportunities to enable more skilled workers to enter the construction industry would be an integral component necessary to help address the workforce shortage."

It added that "the Department should promote all avenues of education and employment, allowing program innovation from all sectors of the industry—union and open-shop—to flourish on such a level playing field."

AGC spokesman Brian Turmail said in an interview, "We've got a really good apprenticeship model. Instead of creating a new type of apprenticeship, we should have just taken steps to make it easier for everyone to establish the same rigorous, equally funded programs that already exist."

AGC contends that the apprenticeship rule doesn't address construction's continued shortage of skilled workers. Turmail says that DOL devoted a large amount of time in trying to write a rule that advances good-paying jobs in various industries, but "did nothing for the industry that needs the help the most."

While Labor Dept. staffers dig into the mountain of comments, construction contractor groups and unions are expected to continue to make their views known to Trump administration officials.

Trevor Falk, NECA director of government affairs, said in an interview, "I've seen no indication that any stakeholders in this ballgame are going to stop until the whistle blows. They'll keep running hard."