The House has approved legislation that seeks to expand apprenticeship programs to train workers in a wide range of industries, including construction, and authorizes $3 billion over five years to achieve that goal.

The legislation, which the House passed Feb. 5 by a 247-173 vote, drew strong praise from construction unions, which operate registered apprenticeship programs in joint efforts with some specialty contractor groups. Construction has by far the most apprentices in registered programs of any industry.

But broad-based construction contractor organizations worry the measure would put apprenticeship programs that aren’t affiliated with labor unions at a disadvantage.

Attention will shift next to the Senate, where Democrats' slender edge may mean they apprenticeship bill's supporters from that party will need Republican support to get the measure passed.

The bill focuses on apprenticeship programs that register with the U.S. Dept. of Labor or state agencies. Such "registered" apprenticeship programs include those affiliated with labor unions and some that are not union-affiliated.

The legislation, if enacted, would be the first reauthorization of the Apprenticeship Act, also known as the Fitzgerald Act, since that measure became law in 1937.

Unions, AGC, ABC reactions

Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, said in a statement that the legislation would “maintain the registered apprenticeship system’s integrity and…ensure that the safety, well-being and economic trajectory of apprentices are protected.”

McGarvey notes that NABTU spends nearly $2 billion on apprenticeship programs, which are joint efforts of the unions and some specialty contractor associations, such as the National Electrical Contractors Association.

Brian Turmail, an Associated General Contractors of America spokesman, said via email that the bill would not allow registered apprenticeship programs that aren’t union-affiliated to be eligible for the bill’s federal funding.

AGC’s member firms include union and nonunion companies.  Turmail noted that AGC has many registered apprenticeship programs that aren’t affiliated with unions, including programs in San Diego and Spokane, Wash. “We see this measure as very discriminatory,” he says.

At Associated Builders and Contractors—whose members take part in registered and nonregistered apprenticeship programs—Peter Comstock, director of legislative affairs, says the bill “would really further entrench the registered apprenticeship system as the only viable system to train and educate a workforce for the construction industry and a host of other industries.” Comstock adds, "That’s a big concern for us, because we believe that there should be more of an all-of-the-above approach to this type of education for our workforce."

Funding boost

The House-approved bill would provide funds to create or expand registered apprenticeship programs. It would start at $400 million in fiscal 2022, rising by $100 million per year to $800 million in fiscal 2026.

In addition, the bill would provide $475 million over five years to state apprenticeship offices, starting at $75 million in 2022, with $10-million annual increases, topping out at $115 million in 2026.

All of the funds would be subject to annual appropriations.

According to a House Education and Labor aide, the fiscal 2021 appropriation for apprenticeship grants is $185 million. The Labor Dept.'s Office of Apprenticeship has an additional $36 million, and further funds are available from H-1B grants.

The aide said the new House bill's funding would provide an increase of $150 million to $200 million over the 2021 enacted appropriations.

DOL statistics show that active and new construction apprentices totaled 263,793 in fiscal year 2019. Public administration was a distant second, with 29,519 active and new apprentices.

Construction’s 191,426 active apprentices in fiscal 2019 marked a 15% increase over the 166,629 active apprentices in 2018.

Correction 2/9/21: Peter Comstock's first name was listed incorrectly in original story.

Story updated on 2/10/21 with additional information about currrent Labor Dept. apprenticeship appropriations and the increase under the new House-passed bill. Story corrected on 2/22/2021, to give correct House vote count of 247 "yea" votes.