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Building on a Proud History of Apprenticeship

Apprentices earn as they learn.
Apprentices earn as they learn.

For over 100 years, North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and its signatory contractors have funded and operated a skilled craft apprenticeship system that is the envy of the world.

Our apprenticeship and workplace-based training is an “earn while you learn” system that offers young people the chance to learn from the best trained construction workers in North America.

When they complete their apprenticeship, these men and women have a portable, nationally recognized credential that they can take anywhere in the country, one that comes with good pay and benefits that will support them and their families.

As U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta noted during the Trump Administration’s Apprenticeship Week, “The Building Trades unions, working together with contractors, spend more than $1 billion per year funding a nationwide network of nearly 1,600 teaching centers. The industry understands the benefits of a skilled workforce and is willing to pay to teach its workers.”

An additional important feature is that most apprenticeship programs in the building trades have been assessed for college credit, which participants can apply toward an associate or bachelor’s degree. To be sure, apprenticeship in the building trades is the “other four-year degree.”

Apprenticeship programs have also proven to provide a greater return for employers. Economic return on investment has shown that employers gain a return for craft training of as much as $3 to every $1 that is invested, according to the Construction Industry Institute; this includes improved safety, elimination of rework, and increased productivity of the craft worker. Similarly, apprenticeship graduates earn substantially more over a career than their counterparts who did not complete an apprenticeship.

The joint administration of apprenticeship and training enables contractors and craft organizations to develop and modify training in real time, in order to better fit the needs of the industry. The rigorous training and education curricula are developed in a manner that is career-centered and allows for a readily available supply of skilled labor for the industry, rather than to a single employer’s immediate needs. This is a win for workers and businesses alike.

As we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the National Apprenticeship Act this August, I believe it behooves us to remind ourselves of the original purpose of the Act, which was “to formulate and promote the furtherance of labor standards necessary to safeguard the welfare of apprentices and to cooperate with the States in the promotion of such standards.”

As apprenticeship programs are created or expanded, they should be tethered to the original intent of the Fitzgerald Act, which encompassed high labor standards, embraced the concept of collective bargaining, and ensured apprenticeship program rigor and quality. These are still important issues today as we equip workers with career skills. While we encourage and support robust apprenticeship programs to meet the needs of employers and industries, we also must safeguard the welfare of apprentices.

NABTU supported the passage of and today celebrates the 80th anniversary of the Act, and we are excited about working in partnership with the Administration and Secretary Acosta to expand successful apprenticeship programs across a range of industries. As the leading historical practitioners of apprenticeship training and education in America, we would urge others to learn from our history, and we look forward to offering our insights and expertise on a successful model that has served workers and the construction industry well for over a century.


Sean McGarvey is the President of North America's Building Trades Unions.

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