Department of Labor officials considering a new rule for U.S. apprenticeship programs have received more than 325,000 comments, 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 — the creation of Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs) that would take over much of the standard-setting now done by DOL and state agencies.
Now that the Aug. 26 deadline for submitting formal comments has passed, DOL officials will decide whether to make any changes to the version that was published on June 25 in the Federal Register and will review the comments as they work on a final version of the rule, which is expected to take months.
The provision in question would recognize select groups as Standards Recognition Entities (SREs), which would establish criteria for structure, curricula and training for industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (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 already 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.
Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU), said in an Aug. 27 statement that the outpouring of comments makes it clear that construction workers support the exemption and want it to be made permanent.
"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," he wrote. "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."
He added that the NABTU "seriously doubts the legal validity of the proposed program."
On the other side of the argument, two national trade groups — Associated Builders and Contractors and Associated General Contractors of America — have stated that they want to see the construction exemption removed, saying the development of an industry-led apprenticeship program would be a positive step in addressing the nation's skilled labor shortage.
“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 Vice President of Health, Safety, Environment and Workforce Development Greg Sizemore said in his comments to the DOL.