Apprenticeship Training – A Solution for What Ails Us
By Port Angeles City Councilman, Lee Whetham
Most of us have been frustrated from time to time by the increasing inability of our nation’s elected leaders to not only address, but simply discuss, many of the pressing problems that plague our society today. Some of these problems have been around for many generations.
Income and wealth inequality
Lack of economic opportunity in our nation’s urban areas. And the dispiriting decline of the labor force participation rate in the United States. Income inequality in the United States has increased significantly since the 1970s. The U.S. currently ranks around the 30th percentile in income inequality globally, meaning 70% of the countries on our planet have a more equal income distribution. Economic opportunities, or the lack thereof, remain at the heart of the struggles. The resulting pressures sometimes explode into urban discord such as that we have seen in places like Baltimore, Maryland.
In September, the U.S. labor force participation rate fell to 62.7%, the lowest since Jimmy Carter was president in the late 1970s.
As noted, these problems aren’t new. In fact, they have vexed our nation’s leaders and policymakers for decades.
What is perhaps even more frustrating is the fact that there is a solution already in existence that can help us overcome many of these challenges.
It’s called Apprenticeship Training and Education.
Right here in Washington State, during the second annual National Apprenticeship Week, November 14th-20th (as designated by President Obama), we will celebrate many concrete examples of just how successful this approach can be.
The building and construction trades unions here in Washington state, in partnership with our signatory contractors, invest roughly $ 60 million dollars to fund and operate over two dozen apprenticeship training centers across the state.
Nationally, the union construction industry invests over $1 billion annually to fund and operate more than 1,600 training centers in every state of the nation.
Here in Washington, we are also fortunate that some local municipalities have had the foresight to adopt Apprenticeship Utilization Requirements (AUR) on publicly-funded construction projects in excess of a certain dollar amount. For example, the City of Port Angeles has a threshold of projects in excess of $1 million.
And two state agencies, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Washington State Department of Transportation, have embraced the AUR concept as well.
What these requirements do is create pathways of opportunity for local residents, particularly and especially residents from historically neglected communities. This includes people of color, women and military veterans. All are given opportunities in the skilled construction trades via career training.
We are not talking merely about jobs here. We are talking about career skills that last a lifetime.
Not only that, but apprenticeship programs have also proven that they provide a greater return for employers. Economic return on investment (ROI) has shown that employers gain a return for craft training of as much as $3 for every $1 that is invested in apprenticeships.
And when we leverage apprenticeship education and training with project management vehicles such as Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), formal apprenticeship education and training benchmarks can have a pronounced impact on local communities and individual lives all across the state.
The Explosives Handling Wharf #2 project at Bangor Submarine Base is a perfect example. When the project was authorized in 2011, the estimated cost was $715 million. In the end, the U.S. Navy realized an adjusted price of $448 million.
One of the reasons all the money wasn’t needed was because a safe, highly skilled and productive local workforce was available through a Project Labor Agreement. This PLA also brought about greater efficiencies via project management and scheduling.
Equally important is the fact that the Bangor project enabled many local residents to gain a foothold on the ladder to the middle class.They did so through the apprenticeship training opportunities and benchmarks.
The numbers are impressive: 14.5% of the man-hours worked on the Bangor project were apprentices. Of those, 16.43% were people of color and 6.32% were women. These numbers were close to, or even exceeded, the benchmarks established in the agreement.
These examples are not unique to Washington state. All across America, the building trades, in partnership with contractors and owner partners — as well as local and national community groups such as the Urban League and YouthBuild — are aggressively pursuing opportunities to improve and expand apprenticeship opportunities.
Today, the building trades have established over 100 Apprenticeship Readiness Programs (ARP) that are specifically designed to provide the necessary preparation for candidates from diverse backgrounds to not only enter a formal apprenticeship program, but to succeed in such a program.
Here in Washington, we have proven that apprenticeship education and training can be an effective catalyst for solving many of the problems and challenges that plague our society today.
Lee Whetham is also the Executive Secretary of the Olympic Peninsula Building and Construction Trades Council, one of nine regional councils throughout Washington State