The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently announced new efforts to expand apprenticeships in the U.S., but some construction organizations are disappointed by its exclusion of an industry under growing pressure from labor shortages.
DOL proposed June 24 to establish a process for creating “high-quality, industry-recognized apprenticeship programs” called IRAPs.
However, DOL exempted the construction industry from participating, “at least initially,” the department says, due to its widespread availability of existing apprenticeships nationwide.
The program would allow trade groups, industries, employer groups and other entities to become a Standards Recognition Entity (SRE) that sets standards for training, structure and curricula for IRAPs in relevant industries or occupational areas. DOL would recognize SREs and ensure its requirements are met, similar to the relationship between the U.S. Department of Education and higher education accrediting agencies.
Currently, DOL registers individual apprentices and apprenticeship programs directly or via state agencies.
“It is troubling that the administration says that the construction industry would not ‘initially’ be eligible for consideration without providing any compelling rationale as to why the industry has been excluded,” says Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), in a statement. “Furthermore, there is no enumeration of the factors that would be considered to permit construction training programs to be included in the apprenticeship expansion program in the future.”
DOL proposes to exempt industries that have over the past five years had annual averages of either more than 25 percent of all federal registered apprentices or more than 100,000 federal registered apprentices.
Construction and military were the two sole industries to be exempt from participation in the program. In 2018, construction had 166,629 of 343,044 registered apprenticeships—nearly half of the available opportunities nationwide, according to DOL data. Military apprenticeships had the second most prominent availability, with 98,435 available in 2018.
“While there are multiple paths into the industry, the fact is that it remains too difficult for many firms and their partners to establish apprenticeship programs for construction workers. Barriers for apprenticeship programs often include the excessive costs incurred during the rigid and inflexible registration process,” Sandherr says in his statement. “Had construction been included in this initiative, many more Americans would have had the option to master construction crafts via the proven apprenticeship model. Instead the administration is sending a clear message that contractors need not apply.”
The program grew from a 2017 executive order from President Donald Trump charging the Secretary of Labor to consider establishing guidelines for entities to follow in order to be qualified and recognized by the program.
The executive order created a task force with representatives of business, labor, educational institutions, trade associations and public officials to offer recommendations on how to best expand the apprenticeship program.
DOL says the proposal reflects key recommendations contained in the final report of the Task Force.
Two union groups commended DOL’s exemption of the industry, noting they’ve already made significant investments in apprenticeship opportunities for thousands of people in the industry.
“IRRAPS would be redundant in an industry that has already built such a successful system to meet workforce needs and help so many workers build a pathway to the middle class,” says Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), in a statement.
“We firmly believe this exemption should be a permanent part of the final rule,” says Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU), in a statement.
Sandherr, however, says its inclusion would be another opportunity for potential employees to enter the industry.
“At a time when the vast majority of construction firms report having a hard time finding qualified workers to hire, it is deeply troubling that the Trump administration has opted to not include the sector in its new apprenticeship proposal,” Sandherr says. “Instead of opening new routes for many thousands of Americans to embark on high-paying construction careers, the administration has instead opted to exclude one of the largest single sectors of the economy from what is supposed to be their signature workforce initiative.”DOL is holding a public comment period about the proposal until Aug. 26. Those interested in participating can either do so online, or visit DOL’s proposal for a detailed list of ways to submit comments.