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Apprenticeships Instrumental in Closing the Gap: $400,000 Swing Between College and the Real World!

Dec 31, 2016

Lee D. Worley
Executive Director of Apprenticeship and Training

A recent nationwide survey of 1,459 contractors conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America revealed that 69 percent are having difficulty finding skilled craft workers. Despite the fact the number is 10 percent lower than last year, 75 percent of construction firms expressed their concern of it being difficult to find hourly craft workers over the next year.

With a young generation not considering construction as a viable career option, a wave of baby-boomer retirements and workers who switched careers during the recession, the growing project demand is dipping into a shallow pool of skilled labor. It has resulted in higher prices and longer construction schedules. Inability to find skilled labor hurts the bottom line when companies can’t meet the growing project demand. The ongoing labor shortage can have a ripple effect on the U.S. economy.

However, the future doesn’t have to be as gloomy as it seems now. Apprenticeship programs present an effective solution to the skilled labor shortage. Tapping into the existing high-caliber apprentice labor force is the best option in closing the gap. Highly-trained and skilled apprentices with on-the-job training graduate from accredited apprenticeship programs every day.

At the Iron Workers (IW), we recognize that the apprentices play an essential role in the growth and development of a safe and highly-trained workforce. Earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship programs help ironworkers make a fair wage with benefits, while training to be a journeyman in their field. Our training centers collectively spend between $80 to $90 million dollars a year in training a skilled construction workforce. Our doors are always open and we average 50,000 applications annually with more coming each year for our four-year apprenticeship program. We average 3,000 to 6,000 graduates a year.

Our apprenticeship program is one of the most recognized and organized in the industry. The apprenticeship and training department developed the Ironworker Apprenticeship Certification Program (IACP), comprised of a comprehensive internal and external evaluation and ten program standards to improve and standardize the quality of training offered at all local unions. We want to ensure the graduates are competent ironworkers, fully capable of meeting the needs of the employers and contractors. We have developed national training material on all aspects and competencies of the ironworking industry and established articulation agreements for college credit upon completion. The Iron Workers’ annual instructor training program receives on average over 700 participants. 

One main reason for the skilled labor shortage is the lack of awareness and a plan to build a pipeline of workers. Regrettably, non-traditional career paths are often not presented to young people graduating high school as a viable and lucrative alternative to college. They are not often well-informed about non-traditional career alternatives. It is time to stop telling our young people that their only path to success is a four-year college degree. We simply need to do better at promoting technical training at the middle and high school levels and providing them with more non-traditional choices that lead to well-paying and highly successful careers.

According to the Department of Labor, apprenticeships are a proven path to secure careers: almost nine out of ten apprentices are employed after completing their programs with an average starting wage above $50,000. If you make $50,000 per year versus spending that or more on college, it’s about a $400,000 swing.

The return on investment for employers is impressive. Studies from around the globe suggest that for every dollar spent on apprenticeship, employers get an average of $1.47 back in increased productivity, reduced waste and greater front-line innovation.

I wanted to be an ironworker because I looked up to generations of ironworkers in my family; my father and uncles were ironworkers and a few of my cousins are. I remember starting my career as an apprentice ironworker at Local 29 in Portland in 1986. I paid my way through college, working rebar in the summer. I worked as a journeyman in many areas of the trade. By the second year of my apprenticeship, I knew I wanted to be an apprentice coordinator. A few years later, I was selected as the apprentice coordinator for Local 29. Later as the Northwest administrative coordinator, I worked with apprenticeship coordinators to manage apprenticeship issues and encouraged them to be active in their state council meetings. I felt an urgent need to educate our young people about great careers in the skilled trades.

Now, I hope to continue to make a difference doing what I do every day in the Iron Workers Union apprenticeship and training department. And most recently, as part of a national effort to bring career-based solutions to the skilled labor shortage, serving on the Department of Labor’s Advisory Committee on Apprenticeship.

May the experience and success of time-tested, earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship models, such as the IW apprenticeship program, serve as a valuable resource for the department’s initiatives.

For more information, please visit ironworkers.org.