As apprenticeships take off, unions are in the driver’s seat

Work Shift

August 17, 2022

By George Lorenzo


When the White House held a summit last month touting its efforts to rebuild the workforce through the American Rescue Plan, Melissa Wells was a featured speaker.

An experienced labor leader, she’d recently joined North America’s Building Trades Unions, an umbrella labor organization for the construction industry, to head up its strategic efforts around workforce development and career pathways. She was given a particular focus on bringing a more diverse group of Americans into the building trades.

NABTU, Wells told the audience, is “very intentional about how we can create a more diverse workforce.” And the linchpin in that work is union-led apprenticeships.

The big idea: As major federal investments like the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure law, and now the CHIPS and Science Act start to create millions of new jobs, the country’s unions are at the forefront of efforts to build up the workforce to meet that demand. It’s a position that they, arguably, haven’t been in since the 1950s—when they led a post–World War II training spree needed to fill all the new roles being created in manufacturing and construction.

Unions feature prominently in both the federal Good Jobs Challenge, which announced $500 million in awards this month, and the Talent Pipeline Challenge that kicked off earlier this summer. And states like California see them as a crucial partner as they look to dramatically expand registered apprenticeships as a way to fill in-demand jobs.

  • Of the 50 largest registered apprenticeships, more than half are run by unions, according to a Work Shift analysis of the federal database.

They’ve long played that training role in the trades, but for decades following the postwar boom, apprenticeships were largely neglected by policy makers. Now, there’s an enormous focus not only on growing the number of apprentices—but on diversifying both the industries and the people they serve.

Dan Marschall, a professor at George Washington University and former executive director of the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute, calls it a revival.

“Lo and behold, baby boomers started to retire, and they had no pipeline for getting new workers,” said Marschall. “So, there has been a huge upswing of interest in training, coupled with a desire to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

‘The other four-year degree’

Apprenticeships have long been a prominent training model for many industries in Europe, including healthcare and manufacturing, but they have historically been more limited in the United States. Siemens AG, for example, trains more than 10,000 people a year through its apprenticeship programs in Germany—but the multinational manufacturer has only begun ramping up its programs in the United States. It’s argued for the federal government and states to make that kind of investment easier.

Beginning with the Obama administration, the federal government has taken a harder look at the apprenticeship structure in the United States and invested more in its growth. Apprenticeships are more common today in healthcare, advanced manufacturing, and tech than they were even five years ago.

In many states, unions have been at the vanguard of the push into new industries. In California, Service Employees International Union began exploring apprenticeship as a way to address the acute shortage of early childhood education workers in the state.

It spent four years, beginning in 2015, piloting three different registered apprenticeship programs in the field. That paved the way for what became a stand-alone organization, Early Care and Education Pathways to Success, that continues the work. To date, more than 300 apprentices have gone through one of its programs.

Even as apprenticeships in other fields grow, the construction industry—and its trade unions—remain the dominant players. And the need there has grown more acute, as the pandemic stressed the construction industry and infrastructure spending makes its way to the states.

North America’s Building Trades Unions coordinates and supports much of the training work that local unions do on the ground. Fifteen years ago, it designed a multicraft pre-apprenticeship program designed to get more people across the country into the apprenticeship pipeline.

The apprenticeship readiness programs, or ARPs, are local instructional gateways offered at no cost to enrollees.

  • The curriculum introduces learners to the construction industry and the trades, their tools and materials, health and safety, blueprint reading, basic math, the heritage of American workers, diversity in the industry, green construction, and financial literacy.
  • In that way, the pre-apprenticeship prepares participants for acceptance into a paid apprenticeship in any number of the building trades.

The ARPs are offered through more than 1,600 apprenticeship training centers across the country. They are taught both online and in person and are designed for a variety of educational settings, including adult re-entry programs, justice-involved programs, and career and technical education, or CTE, high schools.

  • Retention rates for pre-apprenticeship completers are roughly 10 percent higher than those for people going straight into apprenticeship, according to NABTU research.

The current average age of apprenticeship enrollees across the building trades is 28, and NABTU is working to get more younger high school students and recent graduates enrolled in registered apprenticeship programs. The organization’s pre-apprenticeship currently operates in about 100 CTE high schools, including ones in Los Angeles, Austin, Detroit, and Providence, Rhode Island.

“We’re expanding all the time,” said Thomas Kriger, NABTU’s director of education and research. “Last year we had about 3,500 people around the country successfully complete the [pre-apprenticeship], and about 60 percent of them went on to a fully paid registered apprenticeship program.”

Focusing on Diversity

NABTU, like many labor organizations, is also focused on bringing more women and people of color into the trades.

  • Since 2017, between 75 and 80 percent of learners in the apprenticeship readiness program were from communities of color, and 20 to 25 percent were women, according to a research paper by Dale Belman, professor emeritus in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University.

And the organization hopes to continue that.

“We are continuing to partner with state and local government, with our local building trades councils, and with our employer partners to ensure that we are getting more individuals from the communities where this work will take place, or is taking place—to make sure that women, people of color, individuals from Indigenous and Native communities, and individuals who are returning from formerly being incarcerated or justice-involved…have a direct guided pathway and foot in the door to get into a well-paying construction union apprenticeship program,” Wells, of NABTU, said at the White House event.

‘How did I not know about this?’

That means doubling down on marketing and outreach to high school counselors and a broad swath of community-based and national organizations, said Kriger. “We do more outreach around the country and work with organizations like the Urban League, the NAACP, the National  Indian and Native American Employment and Training Conference, and the United Way. In some cities, Goodwill Industries is the lead,” he said.

The outreach includes ensuring that people interested in apprenticeships understand what will be required—such as drug testing and having the reading and math skills to succeed in a pre-apprenticeship.

The organization also has to work with counselors to address the stigma that sometimes surrounds the trades, Kriger said. “We’re engaged, in a big way, with the American School Counselors Association,” he said.

“Your average school counselor doesn’t know anything about how our apprenticeship system works. That’s what we’re trying to change.”

The organization also works with scouting groups and coaches, particularly in women’s wrestling. “We’re working with what we call ‘gatekeepers,’” Kriger said. “We’re trying to get to anybody who’s out there dispensing career recommendations and guidance to young people, so they know about us. We just shared a lesson on registered apprenticeships with Junior Achievement in western Pennsylvania, which is conducting workshops for high school students on career opportunities.”

The selling point that perks up peoples’ ears: “These are good jobs,” Kriger said. “We’re one of the last places in the economy where a young man or young woman coming out of high school can make $75,000 to $80,000 without a college degree in maybe three to five years after high school, with no student debt, and they’ve been working full-time and getting full-time benefits the whole time.”

“When you tell that to school counselors, their first reaction is ‘No, that can’t be right.’ But when you explain to them, ‘Yes, these programs actually exist,’ their next question is ‘How did I not know about this?’”