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Don’t bet the future of our infrastructure on mediocre training

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The construction industry’s Registered Apprenticeship system has been considered the gold standard for skilled trades training. The system has supplied industry employers a trained, skilled and safe workforce on demand for decades to deliver high-quality projects. The Trump administration signed an executive order in 2017 to create Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs) and expand apprenticeship training to other industries. It’s widely believed that the Registered Apprenticeship system’s tremendous success in the construction industry inspired the executive order. 

But now we are at a crossroads. The Department of Labor (DOL) stated in its July 2018 guidance that the construction industry would be excluded from IRAPs, given its high participation in the federal Registered Apprenticeship system. The DOL released the proposed IRAP rule in June, which provides a temporary exemption for the construction industry. But it could be reversed when the rule is finalized, which means that IRAPs enter the construction industry. Self-serving, anti-worker interest groups have been lobbying the government to get the construction exemption from IRAPs reversed. 

IRAPs will fail to meet the construction industry’s workforce needs. They will give any private entity free rein to create substandard apprenticeship programs based on arbitrary standards without government oversight. IRAPs would alter work site requirements and supervision standards and lower the bar significantly for safety in a hazardous industry. Compromising standards of safety could lead to injuries, fatalities, costly project delays and increased chances of rework. It would put workers, customers and the public at risk. 

IRAPs will legitimize substandard training, creating a race to the bottom. Employers who don’t want to invest in proper training would have an unfair advantage with IRAPs. Furthermore, IRAPs could lead to fraudulent activities, bogus credentials, falsification of apprentice and journeyman ratios. We cannot bet public safety on an untested training program without proper safety standards and oversight. We can’t have an unqualified, unskilled, unsafe workforce build our infrastructure.

The Registered Apprenticeship system, on the other hand, is among the largest post-secondary education systems in the nation. It’s required to meet government standards for safety and training. Construction industry employers have relied on the system for decades to provide their tradespeople comprehensive training with in-depth safety instructions to meet specialized needs without having to maintain state-of-the-art training facilities or dedicate time away from their businesses. The building trades operate over 1,600 apprenticeship programs and annually invest over $1 billion with their employers in training programs that supply the industry with safe and skilled tradespeople. 

The construction industry already has a robust, privately funded, successful apprenticeship program with excellent standards and government oversight. It’s unwise for the government to subsidize a competing, mediocre program that could undermine private-sector innovations in apprenticeship training.

Employers in the construction industry run risk-filled businesses with a high probability of injuries and fatalities. A skilled and safe workforce is crucial for their survival. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4,674 workers died on job sites in 2017, nearly 21 percent of them in construction. Construction workers perform physically demanding tasks, at dangerous heights, in harsh weather conditions, exposed to extreme temperatures, with heavy machinery and toxic substances. They must receive the highest quality training with in-depth safety instructions to deliver projects without injuries or fatalities.

A fourth-generation ironworker from Chicago, I spent four years in the Iron Workers Registered Apprenticeship Program, getting on-the-job training with classroom instruction. It was a comprehensive learning system with a standardized curriculum, in-depth safety training, industry expert instructors and journeymen mentors. Formal training in the program awarded me many opportunities in my career and allowed upward mobility. I owe my long career and all the opportunities to apprenticeship training, and have had the pleasure of passing my knowledge and skills down to a new generation of ironworkers as an instructor. I’ve spent years assessing apprenticeship training centers to ensure that they uphold high standards of the Registered Apprenticeship system and, as the general president of the Iron Workers union, I now serve as the chairman of our apprenticeship committee. 

Over the years, as my role grew, I met people who didn’t have the privilege of going through formal apprenticeship training in the Registered Apprenticeship system. They were thrown into jobs they weren’t trained to do. They learned through trial and error, and taught themselves at the expense of their health and safety. That is why we cannot afford to allow deficient training programs in the construction industry.

IRAPs have no place in the construction industry. The construction exemption should be made permanent when the proposed IRAPs rule is finalized.

Eric Dean is the general president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union, AFL-CIO (IW). Follow on Twitter @TheIronworkers.

Tags Construction Department of Labor Internships Ironworkers Registered Apprenticeship
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