A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights the benefits of apprenticeships, noting the positive effect they have on the careers of those who participate. The article seeks to provide examples of those who have benefited from apprenticeship across numerous fields, but it does so while ignoring union apprenticeships entirely. This despite unions being a cornerstone of training in the skilled trades and a provider of far greater numbers of apprentices than the efforts described by WSJ.
As the American workforce continues to undergo drastic changes, apprenticeship programs of all types, both union and nonunion, are needed to meet the demands of the future. According to a study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, there will be a glaring lack of technical certificates and credentials necessary to succeed in high-growth, high-demand industries. The United States will be 5 million workers short in this regard, the study suggests.
WSJ gives the specific example of Dakota Blazier, an 18-year-old who began his path towards apprenticeship while still in high school. When the young man from a small town north of Indianapolis decided he did not want to attend college, apprenticeship became his focus:
I discovered a long time ago,” he explained, “I’m not book smart. I don’t like sitting still, and I learn better when the problem is practical.” But he didn’t feel this limited his options—to the contrary. And he was executing a plan as purposeful as that of any of his high-school peers.
It started in his junior year with release time from high school to take a course in basic construction skills at a craft training center run by the Associated Builders and Contractors. The next step was an internship with a local contractor, Gaylor Electric.
This summer, he’s at Gaylor full time, earning $10 an hour plus credits he can apply at the ABC training center, where he intends to return this fall for a four-year apprenticeship. Mr. Blazier, 18, beamed as he explained his plan. This was no fallback, no desperate Hail Mary pass. It was a thoughtful choice—and he was as proud and excited as if he were heading off to the Ivy League.
Apprenticeship is an excellent choice and the proper apprenticeship can lead to amazing career opportunities. However, omitted from the article is the fact that those who join union apprenticeships (the ABC is a staunchly anti-union organization) are 17 percent more likely to complete their apprenticeship than those who choose the non-union path.
Also missing from the article is an understanding of the quality indicators related to training. Construction unions have mounted a massive push to ensure that apprenticeship programs meet national standards which ensure workers earn credits at community colleges, an idea recently praised by Vice President Joe Biden. This gives the eventual worker more of the mobility being described by the WSJ. The ABC, sadly, does not tend to concern itself with these types of quality standards. Further, non-union apprenticeship typically leads to non-union work, something that often lacks the protections and quality of life afforded by its union alternative.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, the ABC has fought to lower the ratio of journeymen to apprentices, a thinly veiled attempt to diminish wages by hiring more under-prepared workers who come at a cheaper price to contractors. The group has also joined other non-union trades groups in obstructing the government from setting new rules for Silica Dust, a major occupational hazard. Politicians on both sides of the aisle who count the ABC as major donors, meanwhile, are prone to introducing legislation which would lower or eliminate the prevailing wage. If Blazier is not careful, that $10/hour apprentice wage might not see much of a jump when his program ends.
None of this, of course, diminishes the importance of an apprenticeship to the individual who has chosen a non-union program. There is very limited public awareness about the shortcomings of the ABC and its programs, so it would be difficult for a prospective construction worker, especially in the 18-to-25 range, to have all of the available information. This information gap is exacerbated when publications as large as the Wall Street Journal are laying down roadblocks through omission.
If this seems like a stretch, consider the size of the omission. Building Trades unions invest over $1 billion annually in training programs. As the president of the North America’s Building Trades revealed in the Spring of 2013, U.S. construction unions’ collective apprenticeship effort is equal in size to the fourth largest public university in the United States. WSJ can’t possibly be unaware of an effort of this scale. After all, they’ve quoted people slandering union apprenticeship programs in the past.
But this right-leaning rag isn’t alone in its blindness to union apprenticeship. The Center for American Progress (CAP), known for its liberal bent, makes the same glaring mistake in The Underuse of Apprenticeship in America, a new piece which explains just how far America has fallen behind other countries in terms of training its workers. The report features important facts and figures, and insists rightfully that apprenticeship programs result in upward mobility while limiting debt:
An apprentice is a paid employee who receives formal on-the-job training and classroom-based instruction leading to a nationally recognized credential. Because apprentices are paid to learn, they need not forgo employment income in order to pursue education and training. Just as importantly, apprentices gain an education while incurring little or no debt. For their part, employers gain a pipeline of skilled workers who have been shown to increase productivity and boost the bottom line.
But, for all its benefits, apprenticeship is significantly underutilized in the United States. The U.S. Department of Labor currently administers a small system of more than 375,000 active registered apprentices. Here’s how that stacks up to five other developed countries—England, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Scotland—for the 2012 academic year. These countries have model apprenticeship programs that are either already well developed and an integral part of that country’s respective workforce or apprenticeship programs that have grown demonstrably over the past few years through innovative policies that could be replicated in the United States.
Again, however, the question must be asked: How can a conversation about on-the-job training leave out the unions which not only created the culture of American apprenticeship decades ago but continue to out-invest nearly all other participants? Even the government’s own investment pales in comparison to the Building Trades’ collective annual contribution to the training space. To boot, the Obama administration is still only ‘talking’ about developing a program, with far fewer dollars actually hitting the training facility floor:
One promising development on this front is President Barack Obama’s recent announcement of a new $100 million grant program to support the development of innovative apprenticeship programs across the country. The president has also called for $2 billion to double the number of apprentices in the United States over the next five years. In Congress, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC) have introduced legislation that would implement CAP’s recommendation of a $1,000 tax credit for companies that sponsor apprentices.
Apprenticeship may suddenly be a political chess piece in some circles, but it is simply the way things have always been done for skilled trades unions. Any conversation about the importance of apprenticeship that forgets this is, frankly, forgettable.