Every November the Department of Labor holds National Apprenticeship Week to raise the profile of certified training programs that provide a path to the middle class for working people.
This year it’s the week of Nov. 11, and, if this were a normal year, the Labor Department would be holding events across the country that showcase the businesses, labor unions and educational institutions that have certified construction apprenticeships. Nearly 65 percent of all civilian registered apprentices are trained in the construction industry, and of those construction apprentices, 75 percent are trained through the building trades privately funded joint-labor network.
“Everybody wins under the current system, and it’s worth celebrating,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “Our members get a debt-free education that immediately puts them to work in their own communities building the infrastructure needed for all of us to thrive. Construction businesses get a highly trained and motivated workforce with the skills to do the work today and grow as the industry changes. The public gets the safest, highest quality buildings, bridges and roads from a highly productive workforce.”
But today organized labor unions across the country are uniting to save construction apprenticeships from a cynical proposal from the Department of Labor. The rule under consideration would gut these apprenticeships and turn them into little more than the kind of low paid, no future internships that are all too common in the white-collar world.
“We are calling it National Save Apprenticeship Week,” said Political and Legislative Department Director Austin Keyser.
The rule as written, he said, would allow construction companies to create industry-recognized apprenticeship (IRAP) certifications that give employers wide latitude to decide how many hours of instruction to provide, what wages to pay, what the curriculum covers and how much, or little, apprentices need to achieve to graduate. For now, the construction industry is exempted, but nonunion contractors and anti-union interest groups are pushing hard to have that exemption lifted.
“We’ve been building our construction apprenticeship programs with our industry partners for decades and Republicans have been trying to impose second-rate IRAP certifications on us for almost as long,” Keyser said. “All it would do is push more working families into poverty, undermine the gold-standard of construction Registered Apprenticeship Programs, jeopardize public safety and set off a race to the bottom in the industry.”
A total of about 325,000 people wrote to the Labor Department about the value of their construction apprenticeship, including nearly 65,000 IBEW members who responded to a Call to Action in July. Some of the those stories were collected and published this month by the Electrical Worker (“The IBEW Changed My Life.”) More than 95% of the comments were from union members urging the administration to exempt the construction industry from its apprenticeship rule.
“There is still time to pressure administration officials and elected leaders to stop this money grab,” Keyser said. Apprentices and journeymen can still write their own story, he said, and everyone is encouraged to reach out to their representative and senators.
IBEW leaders also encouraged members to get vocal through social media, tweeting at reporters, President Trump and other elected officials in support of registered construction apprenticeships using the hashtag #SaveApprenticeshipWeek and by attending – and posting pictures from – any events hosted by their local union or building trades.
“Keep it short, keep it personal and keep it positive,” Keyser said. “We are rightly proud of our joint apprenticeship; you are rightly proud to be in one or topped out. Make that known.”