Last month, Department of Labor officials considering a new rule for apprenticeship programs received a groundswell of opinion on the matter. The department was bombarded with more than 325,000 comments from Americans, many of them focused on a controversial provision that would especially affect construction workers, according to Engineering News-Record.
At issue is a proposal to exempt the construction industry from one element of the plan — creation of Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs) that would take over much of the standard-setting done by DOL and state agencies.
The provision in question would recognize select groups as Standards Recognition Entities (SREs), which would establish criteria for structure, curricula and training for IRAPs. This would allow industry groups, associations, schools, states, localities and unions to become SREs. Those SREs would set standards for IRAP training and curricula in specific industries or business sectors, with oversight from the DOL.
DOL has said it would exempt construction and the military from the program because those sectors have extensive apprenticeship programs. The provision has split the construction industry — with trade unions and their supporters in favor of the exemption and some associations coming out against it.
Supporters and detractors of the proposal will find out soon if their comments had any sway. DOL officials working on a final version of the rule will soon decide whether to make changes to the version that was published June 25 in the Federal Register.
In the meantime, Construction Dive has compiled the thoughts of two leading proponents for and against the measure, and details their organizations’ views below.
In DOL documents, Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU), said the majority of the country's construction workers support the exemption and want it to be made permanent.
On the other side of the issue, Greg Sizemore, vice president of Health, Environment, Safety and Workforce Development for Associated Builders and Contractors told Construction Dive that his association wants to see the construction exemption removed because the development of an industry-led apprenticeship program would be a positive step in addressing the nation's skilled labor shortage. Read on for their views.
SIZEMORE: American industries have always been the leaders and incubators of transformation in the world, including in educating and upskilling the American workforce. By excluding construction from the proposed IRAPs rule, the DOL is creating a perverse disincentive to increased education opportunities and is prolonging the skills shortage in the construction industry. There is a place for both government-registered and market-driven apprenticeships in an industry that is constantly evolving through technology and process improvements.
Secondly, DOL’s federal apprenticeship program has not produced an adequate number of safe, qualified craft workers to meet construction industry demand. If the estimated 17,748 people who completed federal apprenticeship programs in FY2018 all accepted jobs in the construction industry, it would only supply 4% of the 440,000 additional construction workers that need to be hired in 2019 alone to meet the existing backlog of projects.
Lastly, the overwhelming majority of America’s 8 million construction professionals are developed through industry-recognized and market-driven apprenticeships sponsored by companies large and small. Carving our sector out of the rule communicates a negative and exclusionary message that the only way to be competent or be successful in the U.S. construction industry is through a DOL-registered apprenticeship program, which is simply not the case.
ABC’s 69 chapters and affiliates offer more than 800 apprenticeship, craft, safety and management education programs in 1,400 locations across the United States — including more than 300 DOL-registered apprenticeship programs across 20 different occupations — dedicated to building a safe, productive and skilled workforce. ABC contractor members are also committed to educating their workforce, and spent $1.6 billion in 2018 to provide more than 980,000 course attendees with craft, leadership and safety education to advance their careers in commercial and industrial construction.
McGARVEY: For over 80 years, the Registered Apprenticeship model has served the construction industry and entire communities well by providing safe, structured learning environments where men and women from all walks of life can learn a trade and provide for their families with middle class sustaining careers. Those who truly know and advocate on behalf of the construction industry understand that IRAPs will not provide any of that but will instead only serve to advance a race to the bottom and undermine the safety and financial security of hard-working families.
NABTU and its affiliates fully understand the importance of real apprenticeship training and appreciate the value of expanding this model into new industries. The proposed industry-recognized program, however, falls far short of ensuring that the apprentices in this new system will obtain the high-quality training Congress envisioned in enacting the National Apprenticeship Act.
Instead, by completely ceding the creation of standards and the approval and monitoring of apprenticeship programs to the private sector, the DOL risks opening the doors to the kind of exploitation that Congress specifically sought to end by passing the NAA.
This new program, if permitted in the construction industry, would permit contractors to label as “apprentices” low-wage workers receiving inferior training, and thereby undermine the high standards that the joint labor management Registered Programs have developed and DOL’s Registered Apprenticeship regulations require.
SIZEMORE: All U.S. industries and sectors should be included in the final rule and have the opportunity to participate in the agency’s new and innovative industry-recognized apprenticeship program. Industry has been and will continue to produce the thought leaders and transformation agents recruiting, developing and educating their employees on skills, best practices, safety and technology in their respective sectors.
Recognizing all industries, all employers and the millions of current and future apprentices successfully achieving their career dreams should be the end goal of DOL and administration, as well as a necessary strategy change in order to fill the skills gap and meet the needs of our growing economy.
There is a place for both government-registered and market-driven apprenticeships in construction and other U.S. industries. The biggest opportunities ahead include ensuring the integrity of the new system, maximizing flexibility and incentivizing participation in it.
McGARVEY: Given the proven value of the construction industry’s Registered Apprenticeship system, DOL should be seeking to preserve it, not to undermine it. Permitting the proposed and completely untested Industry Programs in our industry would, in fact, create a huge incentive for those construction contractors that are seeking to cut corners and reduce their costs to turn away from the Registered Programs, to the detriment of workers — in terms of wages, safety and quality of training — and ultimately, of the industry at large, which is sorely in need of workers with greater, not lesser, skills.
It would also disserve the interests of prospective construction workers — including transitioning military service members and members of underserved communities — who, unable to tell the difference between an Industry Program and a Registered 25 DOL Apprenticeship could easily be duped into signing up for programs lacking the protections that Registered Programs promise.
And, this system could easily make the better-skilled apprentices graduating from Registered Programs less competitive, since they would face an industry flooded with lower paid “apprentices.”
Alleviating the labor shortage
SIZEMORE: An “all-of-the-above” approach to apprenticeship would transform the landscape of career technical education, which is the lifeblood of many of today’s American industries. Including all industries would send a clear message about the many career opportunities apprenticeship programs and technical education can provide and would be an important step in reversing the national sentiment that attending college is the only way for people to be successful.
The proposed IRAP model is far too complex and unduly burdensome and lacks evidence to establish the business case as to why any industry sector should participate in this initiative. Until DOL and the administration clearly define the incentives, industry will continue to meet its own market demands with safe and quality education programs, designed and delivered outside of a burdensome, bureaucratic and complex system administered by the federal government or its proxies.
McGARVEY: In partnership with construction industry employers, NABTU and its affiliated unions have built an extensive network of high-quality Registered Programs, which have prepared hundreds of thousands of workers for good-paying, solid careers in the construction industry. The evidence is clear that these programs have yielded tangible results for program participants, for the industry and for the public at large. The proposed new apprenticeship system would have none of the hallmarks that make the Registered Programs so successful and none of the protections that guard apprentices against exploitation.
Permitting construction industry employers to take advantage of this watered-down version of apprenticeship by providing workers with lower quality training at minimum pay rates would completely undermine the Registered Programs.
If DOL decides to go forward with this new system, it can only avoid undercutting the construction industry’s well-established and widespread Registered Programs by clearly and permanently keeping the Industry Program outside the construction sector.