The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, August 09, 2019

Weaker apprenticeship standards loom with new review by DOL

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

(Note: to make your voice heard by the Department of Labor regarding the importance of strong apprenticeship standards, visit your International Union's website to fill out an electronic form. Friends and family of tradespeople can also help by submitting comments via an easy-to-access form at

WASHINGTON - Building trades union International apprenticeship programs are sending up flares to their members, asking for their help this month to maintain existing standards for the nation's construction training programs.

"Greedy nonunion contractors want to destroy our apprenticeship programs so they can cut corners and boost their own profits," says the IBEW's notice to members. "We need your assistance in responding to the serious challenge to UA registered apprenticeship programs," says the United Association of Pipe Trades' website. Says the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers website: "Nonunion employers are trying to destroy BAC Apprenticeship Programs. Let's not let them."

At issue is the work of the Department of Labor's (DOL's) Taskforce on Apprenticeship in the United States, which recommended the creation of a new, watered-down system of apprenticeship training. Unlike the existing decades-old registered programs, the new programs would potentially not be subject to the approval or regulation of the DOL or to a state apprenticeship agency.

This is anathema to building trades unions, which actively seek to meet stringent DOL training standards, and whose apprenticeship programs are organized into a system that collectively spend more than a billion dollars per year to maintain and build on their reputation for quality.

“North America’s Building Trades Unions," said NABTU President Sean McGarvey, "commends the Administration for recognizing in the proposed rule on Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPS) that these new programs have no place in the construction industry. We firmly believe this exemption should be a permanent part of the final rule."

Following is some background on the proposed changes, according to a notice issued last month by the United Association of Pipe Trades.

"In April of 2018, a Taskforce on Apprenticeship in the United States recommended the creation of a new type of apprenticeship program, which unlike our registered programs would not be subject to the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) or to a state Apprenticeship Agency’s approval or regulations. 

"Instead, these Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs) would be approved by Standard Recognition Entities (SREs), which are industry-driven organizations that will be subject to very minimal DOL oversight. Following extensive lobbying by the Building Trades, the Task Force recommended that, given the success of the registered apprenticeship model in construction, IRAPs not be permitted in the construction industry."

Fast forward to June 25, and the DOL issued a "Notice of Proposed Rule Making" (NPRM) setting forth its position with respect to IRAPs and proposed regulations related to their creation and approval by Standard Recognition Entities. The United Association said the proposed rule states that building trades apprenticeships are only "initially" exempted from the proposed new rules.

"However," the UA says, "the DOL invites public comment on this position and whether it should change in the final regulations or whether any exemption for IRAPs in the construction industry should be eliminated at some fixed date in the future."

McGarvey said building trades union training is a time-tested model, usually with more than a century of experience among the crafts. Union building trades spend about $1.6 billion on training at about 1,600 DOL-registered training facilities across North America.

“Construction and construction maintenance are, by their very nature, among the most dangerous industries,"  McGarvey said. "Workers perform difficult physical labor, and are often exposed to extreme temperatures, heavy machinery, toxic substances and hazards related to oncoming traffic on road and bridge projects. To guard against these inherent dangers and promote first-rate work, workers must receive the highest quality education and training. And the building trades’ registered apprenticeship programs provide just that."

That's not a sentiment shared by Associated General Contractors CEO Stephen Sandherr, whose group represents both union and nonunion contractors. The AGC is pushing for easing the rules on apprenticeship regulation.

“At a time when the vast majority of construction firms report having a hard time finding qualified workers to hire, it is deeply troubling that the Trump administration has opted to not include the sector in its new apprenticeship proposal. Instead of opening new routes for many thousands of Americans to embark on high-paying construction careers, the administration has instead opted to exclude one of the largest single sectors of the economy from what is supposed to be their signature workforce initiative.

“While there are multiple paths into the industry, the fact is that it remains too difficult for many firms and their partners to establish apprenticeship programs for construction workers." 

The primary voice of open shop construction, the Associated Builders and Contractors, supports the proposal. “We’re not knocking the existing registered apprenticeships, it does a fine job,” Drew Schneider, an Associated Builders and Contracts lobbyist, told Bloomberg Law. “Where it’s best to use registered they do, but the contractors who want the flexibility and efficiency of industry-recognized apprenticeships should have that chance.”