The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, September 06, 2019

Trades respond, fume, as public comment period ends for IRAPs

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

WASHINGTON D.C. - The comment period for the public to express support or condemnation of a proposal to weaken the nation's traditional apprenticeship training standards closed on Aug. 26. 

Now comes lobbying by Congress and interested parties in the construction industry, review by the Department of Labor, and perhaps in the next few months, a decision.

Building trades union members and family were urged to contact the U.S. Department of Labor, urging them to continue to exclude construction apprenticeship programs from a proposal that would undercut the standards of existing apprenticeship programs with new "IRAPs" - Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs.

The public comment period is likely over, although Democrats in Congress are seeking an extension. Late letters submitted to the Department of Labor from Congressional Democrats and Republicans have illustrated how vital the issue is to the future of the entire construction industry. As usual, the arguments break down along party lines, with Dems urging that union training programs be excluded from the revised DOL rules and Republican lawmakers supporting the weaker apprenticeship standards for the entire industry.

"This historic number of nearly 325,000 comments submitted by working men and women across the United States, makes it clear that construction workers don't want the federal government to cut wages and destroy jobs in a dangerous economic experiment," said North America's Building Trades Union (NABTU) President Sean McGarvey. "The message from Michigan to Florida, from Pennsylvania to New Mexico was absolutely clear: they don't want the swamp to undermine their standard of living and the opportunity for future generations to realize the American Dream. 

"These Americans voted for job creation, not lower wages. They voted to end the special interests' grip on government. They voted to strengthen communities long forgotten, not put public safety at risk. Though the comment period on this major rule occurred in the middle of the summer vacation season and no customary extensions to the time for filing comments were granted, this historic engagement by working families should remind those in the White House and the Department of Labor who are pursuing their own, narrow, ideological agenda that the voting public is now on high alert and will be watching as this proposal develops."

IRAPs, which are proposed for many other industries besides construction, would establish "industry-recognized apprenticeships"  that could "provide high-quality apprenticeship programs and opportunities in a market-driven system," the DOL says. Building trades unions interpret that language as the new norm being "anything goes" in construction training, when it would be outside of the traditional training standards set by the Department of Labor. Construction has initially been excluded from the new standards, but language in the rule allows the industry to be subsequently included in the "market-driven" model. 

A statement from NABTU, echoing the fears of its 15 affiliated unions, said implementation of weaker IRAP training standards "will give private organizations, such as employers and trade associations, free rein to create new watered-down standards and certify sub-par apprenticeship programs."

But in an Aug. 23 letter to acting Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizella, 21 GOP lawmakers signed a letter urging him to consider traditional construction apprenticeship "as just one tool in the toolbox of employers," while urging that training program administration be throw open to private regulation by the business community.

"We were disappointed to see that the construction sector was specifically excluded from participating in IRAPs," the Republican House lawmakers said in their letter. "In the past several years, we have seen  a rapid expansion in skills-based education, like on-the-job learning, earn-while-you-learn programs, and apprenticeships. We applauded the Department's willingness to look beyond the Registered Apprenticeship program to do everything possible to help employers provide opportunities for all Americans to learn while they earn."

A group of House Democrat also sent their own letter to the Department of Labor, "to express our concerns with the proposed changes to the National Apprenticeship Act." In their letter dated Aug. 26, the group of 127 House Dems requested a 60-day extension to the public comment period, saying the prior 60-day period did not allow Congress time to "adequately understand the ramifications of the proposed changes."

"In sum," the Dems' letter said, "this proposed regulation undermines the exiting Registered Apprenticeship system, including the investments states, employers and unions have made across the country, by enabling programs to be potentially created with potentially lower quality standards under the name of 'apprenticeship.' While the Secretary does have the authority under the Act to bring together employers and labor for the formulation of programs of apprenticeship, this proposed action seems unnecessary as Registered Apprenticeships have experienced increased interest and investment in recent years. This is demonstrated by the fact that the number of active apprentices is currently 137 percent higher than the 20-year annual average."

It's not clear when the DOL will choose to weaken the apprenticeship standard for construction, or keep the decades-old model. 

"For over 80 years," McGarvey said. "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."