A New Urgency for Labor Day 2017

For most Americans, Labor Day is nothing more than a symbolic end to the summer; a time to gather together with family and friends for one last foray to the beach, the lake, the mountains, or to just gather in the backyard for cookouts and good cheer.

And while those pursuits are important and indicative of the fabric that makes America such a vibrant and great nation, they are also, sadly, very telling in how we have lost touch with the historical significance of this important holiday.

At its origin in the late 1880s, Labor Day was conceived because America’s workers felt they were spending too many hours and days on the job.

These long working hours caused many worker advocates to focus on winning a shorter eight-hour work day, as well as securing more days off via formal holidays and a reduction in the workweek from a full seven days to just six days.

Surprisingly, many politicians and business owners during that time were actually in favor of giving workers more time off, primarily because they understood that workers who had no free time were not able to spend their wages on traveling, entertainment or dining out.

As the U.S. economy expanded beyond agriculture in the late 1800s and into large-scale manufacturing in the early 1900s, it became critically important for businesses to find consumers interested in buying the products and services that were being produced in ever greater amounts. Shortening the work week was one way of turning the working class into the consuming class.

Today, however, we have a markedly different problem.  Put simply, American workers, for the most part, don’t have enough work, or enough opportunities for full-time employment.

Underemployment in the United States today is an incredibly neglected public policy issue and media story.

In April 2017, the U.S. “underemployment rate” was 14 percent.  In late 2016, a study from PayScale.com found that 46% of American workers considered themselves underemployed, and it’s a safe bet that when people aren’t working to their full potential, they’re not earning as much as they could, either.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains what is calls a “labor underutilization” rate, which factors together, as percent of the civilian labor force, total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers, plus workers employed part time for economic reasons, plus all marginally attached workers.  When looking at this underutilization measure, we see a dramatically different employment picture in many states across our nation through the second quarter of 2017 – for example, Alaska (13.1%), California (10.7%), West Virginia (10.1%), Ohio (9.5%), Michigan (9.5%), and Pennsylvania (9.9%).

Fortunately, there is a cure for this discomforting employment picture, and it resides in two issues that both political parties have enthusiastically embraced – infrastructure investments and formal apprenticeship education and training.

President Trump has elevated infrastructure as one of his top economic priorities, and Congressional Democrats have done likewise in the recent unveiling of their “Better Deal” economic policy agenda, so there is continued hope that proposals to boost this investment will have bipartisan support.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities State (CBPP) has reported that investment in transportation, public buildings, water treatment systems, and other forms of vital infrastructure is key to creating good jobs and promoting full economic recovery.   The CBPP concludes that states should reject the economic growth strategy of cutting taxes and offering corporate giveaways, and instead identify and make investments in infrastructure that provide the foundation for a strong economy.

Unfortunately, overall spending on infrastructure as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) has been in long-term decline.

Government infrastructure spending in the second quarter fell to 1.4% of GDP, which just happens to be the lowest share on record. According to Thomson Reuters, investment by American municipalities in the first seven months of 2017, which totaled $50.7 billion, was nearly 20% below the same period in 2016.

Private-sector infrastructure funds show a similar trend.  Deal volume in the first half of 2017 fell by 7.5%, to $36.6 billion, and the overall number of deals fell by a quarter.

Reversing these trends would provide a much-needed turbo boost to the U.S. economy and to American job growth, not to mention helping to re-build in the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

And when we talk about job growth, it is vitally important that we speak to the quality of the jobs being created, and not just the quantity.

American workers are tired of having to work two and three jobs just to make ends meet.  And they are tired of watching the proliferation of a “low road” business model that has, for example, contributed to wages in the construction industry (adjusted for inflation) actually declining since the 1970s.

That’s why North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) have been vociferous in its advocacy for leveraging public infrastructure investments with our world-class apprenticeship training and education infrastructure, which is the pride of the American labor movement and provides a comprehensive way for an individual to acquire the instruction, experience and skills to obtain an established career, without the burden of student loan debt.

With the opportunity to learn from the construction industry’s most highly trained instructors in a safe environment, apprentices graduate with a portable, recognized credential affording them good pay and benefits to support themselves and their families.

And the continuous training and skills upgrades that we provide serves to address the evolving concerns of businesses and industry for the development of a quality skilled craft workforce that continually meets their needs. A healthy and viable union construction apprenticeship and training system is also a proven avenue to restore the American middle class and bring dignity and security back to the workplace.

Further, NABTU’s Apprenticeship Readiness Programs (ARP) offer interested candidates the opportunity to gain the necessary and fundamental education and knowledge that will enable them to better succeed in a formal construction craft apprenticeship program.  From plumbers, to electricians, to ironworkers, elevator constructors, painters, bricklayers, operating engineers and more, career choices in the skilled trades are vast, diverse and plenty.

With a particular and specific emphasis being placed upon a broader outreach to women, communities of color and transitioning military veterans, NABTU’s apprenticeship-readiness programs, which now number close to 150 across the U.S., are expanding the diversity of the U.S. construction industry, while creating career training opportunities in areas that have long been starving for such programs, including and especially large metropolitan and remote rural areas that have seen their share of socio-economic challenges.

A recent Business Roundtable survey of CEOs reported that 95 percent of executives reported difficulty finding qualified employees. Americans want to work, but they can’t find enough work; and American companies want to hire, but they cannot find the workers they need with the right skills.

Apprenticeships teach the skills needed to find a good, stable job and to succeed in that job. Apprenticeship programs combine a paid work component with an educational component. Moreover, apprentices earn while they learn, which eliminates the problems of crippling student loan debt.

As U.S. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta noted recently, “individuals who complete an apprenticeship program, on average, earn a starting wage of more than $60,000 per year. This is higher than the average starting salary of students who graduate from traditional colleges. And nearly nine out of 10 are employed upon completing their apprenticeships.”

So, as we approach Labor Day 2017, and take time to reflect upon the importance of work, and how career and employment opportunities are so central to the health and vitality of the American economy and American society, let us hope that our nation’s lawmakers have the foresight to put aside partisan acrimony and pursue a stout package of infrastructure investments that incorporates apprenticeship-readiness and formal apprenticeship education and training, as well as strong community wage and benefit standards, that will result in tremendous economic and social rewards all across our great nation.