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Saved! Deluge of public comments sustain trades' apprenticeship programs

Date Posted: March 20 2020

WASHINGTON D.C. - The U.S. Department of Labor issued a long-awaited rule on March 10 that could have had a devastating impact on the future of union-sector construction training programs.

Instead, after a record (326,798) number of letters and comments to the DOL urging an exemption for construction, the U.S. construction industry was "carved out" of the new "Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs" (IRAPs) rule, essentially maintaining the status quo for building trades training programs. The new rules do apply to apprenticeships in other industries, however.

Leaders in the building trades union and allies among Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate vigorously protested applying an IRAP system to the construction industry, fearing the new rules would privatize apprenticeship programs and eliminate DOL-sanctioned training standards. To put it another way, a union building trades journeyman's card recognizing the completion of four or five years of training isn't worth much if the guy working nonunion on the job across the street has the same certification after just two years of training, using standards set by individual employers.

“To be sure, there have been spirited debates both inside and outside the Administration about how to finalize this rule," said North America's Building Trades President Sean McGarvey. "And we saw an outpouring of support that culminated in record level engagement by citizens in the public comment period that reiterated, both the need and ongoing support, for the registered apprenticeship system in the construction industry. 

"We are pleased that their voices were heard and that the final rule recognizes the protections for, and success of, registered apprenticeship in the construction industry. We thank those in the Administration who supported the construction industry’s high-road training standards that empower workers to reach and remain in the middle class."

The IRAP proposal emerged after June 25, 2017, the date President Trump signed an Executive Order on "Expanding Apprenticeships in America," which directed the secretary of labor to consider proposing regulations that promote the development of apprenticeship programs by third parties. It was seen as a gift to companies that run nonunion training programs who find the whole process of getting certified laborious, expensive and inconvenient.

The Department of Labor's proposal for IRAPS said they could "provide high-quality apprenticeship programs and opportunities in a market-driven system." Building trades unions and their allies interpreted 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 DOL.

A task force was formed, hearings were held, and public comment was solicited. On June 25, 2019, the Department of Labor issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register to implement the new IRAP rules for construction and other industries. That's when building trades unions from across the nation urged members to submit comments protesting the proposal, which was seen as an existential threat to building trades union apprenticeships. The letters and comments had their desired effect, and the DOL backed down.

The U.S. construction industry is the nation's primary user of apprenticeships, but the programs also exist in lesser numbers in areas like health care, advanced engineering, manufacturing, and transportation. Those other job sectors are subject to the new IRAP rules.

“The Department of Labor is walking away from this clear record of success and wasting taxpayer money by setting up an entirely untested and unproven system," said U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “Specifically, the Department’s new IRAP model would discard the key features responsible for the success of the existing registered apprenticeship system. For example, the IRAP system established under this rule strips the Department of its critical role in certifying that apprenticeship programs are meeting quality standards and upholding worker protections. 

“Additionally, the Department cannot guarantee that IRAPs are standardized and portable throughout the country. A worker that completes a program Newport News, Virginia, likely will not be able use that credential in Newport Beach, California. 

“This rule will expose apprentices to low-quality programs, squandering valuable taxpayer money and undermining the integrity of the existing registered apprenticeship system."

The Associated General Contractors of America, which represents both union and nonunion contractors, bemoaned the carve out for the construction industry. 

“It remains troubling that the administration has wasted so much time, energy and political capital in creating a new apprenticeship program that is both deeply flawed and fails to address construction workforce shortages," said AGC CEO Stephen E. Sandherr. "Instead of deciding to exclude construction, the administration should have found ways to make it easier to establish the kind of rigorous, high-quality, construction apprenticeship programs that exist in some, but far from every, part of the country."