By Marty Mulcahy, Editor of The Building Tradesmen Newspaper
With an aging industry workforce losing workers to retirement, and a strong, long-term forecast for good employment opportunities in most of the state, the unionized construction industry in Michigan is reaching a crossroads, with a number of questions that need to be answered.
How will the construction industry attract the next generation of workers? Who is going to train them? How can they be attracted into union apprenticeship programs? And why should they choose to work union?
A new report, Benefits of Michigan Apprenticeship Programs, attempts to quantify the value of a union apprenticeship, which has graduation rates higher than that of most community colleges in the state and double that of nonunion programs. The report points out that union apprentices are paid as they work, they complete their training without incurring any education debt, and graduates can look forward to pay and benefits that will provide a middle class lifestyle.
“This report is timely for a couple reasons,” said Ken Sikkema, senior policy fellow, Public Sector Consultants, and a former Republican state senator. “One, there is a huge demand from employers for skilled workers. And apprenticeships can deliver on that. Secondly one of the big issues of our time is angst about the middle class. What’s the best pathway to a sustainable middle class lifestyle, with good paying wages over a long period of time? And these apprenticeships actually provide that pathway.”
Public Sector Consultants prepared the report for the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, the Michigan State Conference International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Southeastern Michigan Chapter, and the Michigan Chapter National Electrical Contractors Association.
“Apprenticeship programs provide a large economic benefit to the state of Michigan,” according to the report. “They provide post-secondary training to a large cohort of workers without requiring public funds. The Workforce Intelligence Network estimates that 37 percent of Michigan job growth over the next five years will be in ‘middle skills’ occupations’ like the building trades.”
Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, said the report is a marketing tool to illustrate the job opportunities and benefits of a construction career. “We’re seeing a major spike in demand for workers, so the timing couldn’t be better,” he said. “On the national level the president is talking about a trillion dollar investment in infrastructure, and the men and women in the skilled trades are going to be the ones who put all that together and build it. It’s a great opportunity, a great way to make a living. We are what I always refer to as the backbone of the middle class, and we’re here to keep it alive and well.”
For a high school graduate or a military veteran leaving the service looking to further his or her education toward a career path, union apprenticeship schools are one choice among many.
Graduates could attend a community college or four-year university. According to the report, if they do, they should consider:
- The completion rate for registered apprenticeship programs (42 percent) is greater than the graduation rate of all but two of Michigan’s public community colleges.
- Completing an apprenticeship program significantly raises a worker’s wage. The wage a worker earns upon completing an apprenticeship program is higher on average than the wage of those with an associate’s degree who are younger than 40.
They could go to work for a nonunion shop, vs. a union program. According to the report, if they do, they should consider:
- Apprentices are more likely to complete union programs (42 percent completion rate vs. 22 percent for nonunion apprentices).
- Wages go up each year that union apprentices participate in the program. In addition to their wages, workers also earn fringe benefits including insurance, vacation time, and pension benefits.
- Union apprenticeship programs are more experienced, on average training 80 percent of all apprentices in Michigan. And while both women and non-whites are underrepresented – they make up only 3 and 11 percent of all apprentices, respectively – union programs train a disproportionate share of those women (90 percent) and minorities (87 percent).
The benefits continue after the apprenticeship is complete:
- Apprentices earn more after completing union programs ($22.21 per hour compared to $14.55 per hour for nonunion apprentices). On average, workers completing an apprenticeship program saw their wages increase by 51 percent, while for nonunion apprentices, the increase was 30 percent.
- A student attending a community college in Michigan would pay on average $4,807 per year in tuition, according to the report. In addition, more than $6,000 in public funds per year is spent for each community college student. In 2014, the average student loan debt in Michigan was $29,518.
Contrast that with union apprenticeships, where apprentices pay nothing for their education, get paid to participate in their programs, and owe nothing upon graduation.
“The importance of apprentices in what we do is they regenerate my workforce,” said John Banks, president, Motor Shop Electrical Construction and president of the Michigan Chapter, National Electrical Contractors Association. “They are individuals that come in with the skill and training and attitude in order to make sure that our projects are completed on time and on budget. So those individuals are essential to what we do.”
A few other news and notes from the Public Sector Consultants report:
- Union apprenticeship programs are sponsored jointly by unions and the employers with which they collectively bargain. Nonunion apprenticeship programs are generally set up by individual employers—although employers can collaborate and provide programs jointly.
- From 2000 to 2014, 31,703 individuals participated in registered apprenticeships in Michigan. During that period, an average of 2,114 new apprenticeships were started each year across all the trades. The number of new registered apprenticeships dropped during the Great Recession, with just 1,512 apprenticeships started in 2009 and 1,780 in 2010. Since then, however, the number of new apprenticeships has rebounded, with 2,417 new apprenticeships in 2014, the highest number since 2000.
- Of the apprenticeships during that period, 80 percent (25,457) were union programs, while the remainder (6,224) were nonunion.
- The top five apprenticeship occupations represent approximately two-thirds of Michigan apprenticeships. These occupations are electrician (22 percent), construction craft laborer (17 percent), carpenter (12 percent), roofer (7 percent), and pipe fitter (7 percent).