November 2014

American Apprenticeships

Earlier this year President Obama set an ambitious goal to double the number of apprenticeship programs in the U.S. within five years and on April 16 announced the American Apprenticeships Initiative to help meet this goal. A key element of this goal is to expand innovative apprenticeship models into new and growing industries like construction. I attended a meeting recently to participate in a Construction Industry Roundtable discussion focused on the skilled talent needs of our industry and how apprenticeships recognized by the Department of Labor can help meet those needs. U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez opened the meeting with an inspiring message to the attendees and encouraged all to voice their experiences, challenges and opinions to the group.

One of the biggest challenges many apprentice programs face when recruiting new applicants is the lack of knowledge the general population has towards the building and construction trades. Add to the fact that most U.S. high schools are preparing students for college and completely ignore apprenticeship as a viable career option, it is no wonder why union membership has declined steadily over the last several decades. (Since the early 1980s, union membership rate in the U.S. has dropped from 20.1 percent to 11.3 percent in 2013. Union membership rate in Canada is nearly 30 percent). 

The Employment and Training Administration acknowledges registered apprenticeship as a proven and structured “earn and learn” model pairing paid on-the-job learning with related technical classroom instruction in any number of career fields. It offers job seekers immediate employment opportunities that usually pay higher than average wages and offer continued career growth. However, individuals at the roundtable commented on how often we hear the notion that apprenticeship is referred to as a “dumping ground” for non-college bound students. Quite the contrary, apprenticeship is a form of secondary education equal to a 2 or 4 year college degree – WITH ZERO STUDENT LOANS TO PAY BACK! Over a career, someone who has gone through a registered apprenticeship program earns an estimated $300,000 more in salary and benefits than someone who did not.

Currently, our organization has just over 12,000 apprentices registered in our 154 training centers in North America and 93,000 active members. Approximately $50 million is spent collectively each year training our members in a variety of safety and welding certifications. These certifications are instrumental in keeping our members employed and usually without a direct cost to the member. No tuition is charged and if there is a certification fee IMPACT will incur the cost! The average wage for a journeyman ironworker in our organization in May 2014 was $28.87 an hour. That would make the annualized average income to be approximately $62,000.

Now let’s look at the cost of a student attending a four year university. If annual tuition is $20,000 and it takes an individual four years to graduate you’re looking at a grand total of $80,000 – not including room and board! I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of going to college versus joining a skilled trade because both are important to our country’s welfare, however, it’s easy to see after four years one of our members would have earned over $240,000 in wages compared to a student who would have paid or will owe over $80,000 in student loans minus the potential earnings!

I had an opportunity to address the roundtable participants and I stressed trade awareness and career opportunities is the direction the building and construction trades should direct their efforts as a way for an organization to grow. If the general population has no idea about apprenticeships in construction, for example, how likely are they to know who the Iron Workers are? If President Obama is to succeed with his goal, then national campaigns and literature is to be disseminated to the general public, educational institutions, and yes, even to employers! The term apprenticeship should not be kept a secret. General President Walter Wise’s goal of doubling our market share means an increase in employers and membership. Having a trained and steady workforce is not attained overnight. A continual flow of new members must be initiated into our local unions! Our apprentice coordinators spend a lot of time recruiting new applicants and it’s a time-consuming job. Hopefully, with President Obama’s national campaign, and with your help spreading the word, a larger pool of qualified applicants will be looking to our training centers to become the workforce of the future.