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ABC training needs to go back to school, new study finds

Date Posted: November 14 2003

A six-month investigation into the nation's construction apprenticeship programs found "startling" flaws and failures in the standards and completion rates of nonunion apprenticeship programs sponsored by the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors.

Conducted by the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department using U.S. Department of Labor data and released Oct. 28, the study is called A Preliminary Report on Associated Builders and Contractors Apprenticeship Training: Flawed and Failing Initiatives. The report contrasts union apprenticeship systems in many states with those of the ABC.

"The numbers speak for themselves," said Building Trades Department President Edward Sullivan. "Something is wrong and the ABC's failing programs clearly warrant further scrutiny and investigation."

The study found that the Associated Builders and Contractors apprenticeship programs in this report produced overall twice as many cancellations as graduations. 
The numbers for four Michigan ABC chapters reflected that trend, with 51 percent of the ABC apprentices registered between 1995 and 2002 canceling their training before it was completed.

Moreover, the overall number of graduated ABC apprentices in Michigan over all crafts is astoundingly low, totaling only 120 from 1995 to 2002, according to the building trades study.

Numerous individual ABC apprenticeship programs produced three to four times as many cancellations as graduations. In some individual crafts, the cancellation to graduation ratio was even higher.

From 1997 to 2001, Labor Department numbers indicate the union apprenticeship programs in 36 states that participate in its database graduated 75 percent of enrollees, or 45,580 apprentices. That's three times the numbers graduated by non-union programs.

"Apprenticeship programs allow sponsors to employ apprentices at lower rates of pay than fully-trained workers, but only in exchange for providing substantive training," Sullivan wrote in a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, calling for an investigation. "Any misuse of the apprenticeship system undermines the industry's future, and potentially defrauds construction workers."

The Building and Construction Trades Department is calling on Secretary Chao and the Department of Labor: to initiate a thorough investigation of ABC's programs to determine the cause for the high cancellation rates; to establish minimum graduation rates for all apprenticeship programs, with the rates established by craft; to create a monitoring process, based both on on-site inspection and on the use of the existing Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services database of apprenticeship registrations, cancellations, and graduations; and, to terminate the registration of programs that fail to meet these new standards.

Why does any of this matter? Of course it's an indication of lousy ABC training. The ABC's poor training record is one of the contractor group's best-kept secrets, because it does an excellent job of marketing. But the greatest marketing program in the world can't overcome the damage their poorly skilled workers do in bringing down skill levels, pay standards and safety for all construction workers.

Beyond that, while the ABC is constantly touting its free-market philosophy, its chapters are highly dependant on taxpayers to fund their programs - but any school system that only graduates one-third to one-half of its students deserves to have its methods examined.