An Overlooked Ticket to the Middle Class is Being Threatened
Every day we hear news stories about the growing skills gap, college debt, and workforce shortages, but what we do not hear about are the high-quality, debt-free education opportunities that construction registered apprenticeship programs afford tens of thousands of Americans. These tickets to the middle class are improving lives daily for men and women from all walks of life.
With workforce development being one of America’s most important priorities, it should not be a secret that Registered Apprenticeship is one of America’s greatest assets. For over 80 years in the construction industry, Registered Apprenticeship has been a debt-free middle-class career pathway — providing the world’s safest, most skilled, and productive workforce and increasing industry-wide safety, skill and productivity. In construction, its capacity is nationwide and all privately-funded. In fact, today, we co-invest over $1.6 billion annually with our contractor partners in a workforce training infrastructure that trains more people in hard skills than anyone in the world outside of the U.S. military.
This model works. Take Dawn Benitez, a former U.S. Army staff sergeant in Georgia who served our nation with distinction, earning an Iraq Campaign Medal with a Campaign Star. When she returned from duty, she struggled to find meaningful employment. Our apprenticeship readiness and registered apprenticeship training changed her life — not just with a job, but equipped with portable, life-long craft skills and a family-sustaining career in her local community.
Take Cheyenna Hawn, a young single parent with school-age children who grappled with wanting to be a good mother but also advancing in a career. Living in a rural community in Tennessee, Cheyenna was surprised to discover that she could do both by going through the construction registered apprenticeship system. Now, as a third-year apprentice, Cheyenna is on a middle-class career pathway with both financial security and balance in her family life. And then there is Carrie Robles, a single parent working multiple jobs in Minneapolis who had to bring her two toddlers to work because she could not afford nightshift childcare. Carrie wanted a better life for her and her family. She heard that one could earn an income while taking highly-skilled construction classes through a registered apprenticeship. Wary that it was just hype, she hesitantly signed up. The opportunity changed her life for the better. Carrie not only became a journeywoman, but she also moved up to a foreman, a superintendent and is now a business rep for her local.
It’s not just hype. Registered apprenticeship works to make the American Dream real. It does this through a proven earn-as-you-learn model with rigorous curriculum, skills and safety training, proficiency, apprenticeship-to-journeyworker ratios that guarantee safety, non-discrimination requirements, progressive wage increases, and strict government oversight. The result is a successful system that provides tens of thousands of diverse workers annually with good-paying careers, where they gain the expertise needed to meet competitive demands of our industry.
Recently, there has been a lot of attention on the Department of Labor’s proposed rule on apprenticeship. North America’s Building Trades Unions were pleased to participate in those deliberations to impart our experiences and highlight our success stories. Unfortunately, with no requirements for rigorous in-class and on-the-job training, no defined quality controls or program oversight, no extensive safety training, no protections from discrimination or exploitative wages, and no recognized level of proficiency upon completion of the program, Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs) — as proposed — abandon many of the protections of Registered Apprenticeship. In 2019, this is an obvious step backwards. For people, like Dawn, Cheyenna, and Carrie, who are earnestly trying to improve their lot in life, IRAPs would diminish that opportunity and set apprenticeship on a race to the bottom instead of a ladder to the top.
That’s why the Building Trades are raising awareness for this month’s National Save Apprenticeship Week instead of the usual National Apprenticeship Week. The unprecedented outpouring of support from our members, government and industry this summer generated over 325,000 public comments to save registered apprenticeship, and we want to continue to make it clear: In order to safeguard communities and protect America’s future, the government must preserve the integrity of registered apprenticeship and keep IRAP’s out of construction.
Sean McGarvey is President of North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU).