CEO, The Association of Union Constructors
If you've been involved in union construction and maintenance for any length of time, you understand the importance of apprenticeship programs. They are the engine that keeps our industry running over the long term, transferring knowledge and skills from one generation to the next. The building trades and contractors collectively spend well over a billion dollars each year on more than 1,600 training centers across the country.The advantages of apprenticeship programs are obvious. Not only is the training free, but young people are also able to “earn as they learn” and take home a weekly paycheck while mastering the basics of their chosen profession. Once they’ve finished their training, they enter the workforce debt-free and ready to command a significant starting salary with fringe benefits that are the envy of many graduates with a traditional four-year college degree. Oh, and by the way: if an apprentice wants to continue their education at a college or university, many programs allow them to earn college credit during their training and apply it to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree down the line.
As I said, for most of us in the industry, this is old news.
For years we’ve been touting our high-quality training and urging millennials to give the building trades a second look. Recently TAUC put together a comprehensivewebsite, We Build and Maintain the USA (www.webuild-usa.org) , to help high-school graduates find the craft that matches their skills and interests. But over the last few months, it seems the rest of the world has finally started catching on to the value of apprenticeships. You can’t open a newspaper or click on a news website these days without seeing an article about the importance of apprenticeship training programs. Both President Trump and Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta have publicly praised the building trades and union contractors for setting the gold standard when it comes to apprenticeship training. The secret is out, and there’s no going back.
It doesn’t take a detective to figure out the reason. For one thing, the hard truth about the current skilled labor shortage is finally hitting home. In many areas of the country, there are plenty of available high-paying jobs (especially in manufacturing), but not enough skilled workers to fill them. This Catch-22 threatens to inhibit economic growth at a time when we need it most. And if PresidentTrump’s long-promised trillion-dollar infrastructure program is passed by Congress, a big problem will only get bigger. Once those massive projects start to come online, the demand for experienced craft workers will skyrocket.
In response to this dilemma, President Trump in mid-June issued an executive order that will allow third parties (like companies and trade associations) to create their own apprenticeship guidelines. Though these would still have to be approved by the Department of Labor (DOL), the idea is to lessen the amount of bureaucratic red tape needed to get new training programs up and running. The order also calls on DOL to double the amount of money available for apprenticeship grants to almost $200 million per year.Cloud or Silver Lining? What does all of this mean for union construction and maintenance? First off, it’s always great to hear the President and senior Administration officials praise our efforts. And anything that helps shine the light on the building trades apprenticeship system should be applauded. But the fact is, these new pro-apprenticeship initiatives may wind up making it more difficult for us to recruit the next generation of craft workers. The building trades and contractors have always taken pride in the fact that our training efforts are 100% privately funded. We don’t ask for any help from the federal government, and despite the increase in available apprenticeship grants, I don’t expect that to change. Potentially, that means the millions in extra grant money will make it easier and more cost-effective for our non-union competition to create better and more competitive training programs. Think it’s hard to find qualified young people now? Just wait.
In light of these new developments, we have no choice but to reexamine our strategy when it comes to apprenticeship programs. Here are a couple of strategies I think our industry should consider:Focus on what makes us unique.
Thanks to the increase in federal grants, I expect we’ll hear a lot of talk about the “apprenticeship renaissance” over the coming months and years. As union contractors, we have every right to remind the public that not all apprenticeship programs are created equal.Our privately funded centers are the best because of the one-of-a-kind partnership that exists between labor and management. The tripartite model isn’t a cookie-cutter formula; it has taken decades of hard work to mold and shape it into a tool for innovation and growth. You won’t find it anywhere else.
Our training programs are inextricably linked to that tripartite spirit. Others can’t simply point to our success and say, “Great, now let’s do the same thing with some help from the government.”It doesn’t work that way. There are no shortcuts. You can’t reap the rewards without putting in the work.
Push for change and innovation.Despite our many successes and all of the accolades we have received, we have to realize that our system isn’t perfect. We’re good, but we can always get better. In order to meet increased and perhaps government-funded competition head on, we can’t afford to sit back and grow complacent. Here are a few questions to ask: How can we make our apprenticeship training more
effective and efficient? Are there better delivery systems – e.g., are we utilizing online training where practical to complement in-person, “live” education? Have we fallen into the trap of “This was the way I was taught, so this is the way we’re going to teach everyone else”?
How can we speed up training without sacrificing quality? Do our training methods recognize and integrate the new ways in which millennials communicate and absorb information (e.g. smartphones, tablets and social media)? The new focus on apprenticeship by government and the media should be applauded. It’s a great opportunity for our industry to shine – and let’s face it, those chances have been few and far between over the past several years. So let’s take advantage of it. Let’s welcome the attention with open arms, point out why we’re great at what we do, ride the wave...and work like hell to get even better.The writer also serves as Impartial Secretary and CEO of the National Maintenance Agreements Policy Committee, Inc. (NMAPC). This originally appeared in The Construction User, Summer 2017.