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Apprenticeship utilization works for workers, contractors

By Mark P. Martinez

Apprenticeship is an educational model that combines on-the-job training and classroom instruction to teach all aspects of a highly skilled occupation. Apprentices “earn while they learn,” overseen by experienced journey-level workers to ensure the quality of both the education and the project. These programs are funded by joint employer and labor groups, individual employers and/or employer associations.

Government does not sponsor these programs, but can and does help promote family-wage career opportunities by approving apprenticeship utilization standards on public works projects, where a certain percentage of the work hours are performed by apprentices.

The Pierce County Building and Construction Trades Council, its 16 affiliated craft unions and their combined membership of 7,500 union construction workers living in Pierce County are asking members of the Pierce County Council to pass an ordinance placing a 20% apprenticeship utilization goal on the Chambers Creek Regional Water Treatment Plant upgrade.

Meanwhile, the Associated General Contractors (AGC) recently published an article demonizing apprenticeship utilization standards and we want to set the record straight.

The AGC says apprenticeship utilization interferes with collective bargaining because journeyman-to-apprentice ratios are often addressed in labor agreements. But in Western Washington, most contractual ratios far exceed a 20% apprenticeship utilization. Many union agreements require a 2-to-1 or a 1-to-1, so a minimum 5-to-1 (20%) ratio is not in conflict and is easily achievable.

The AGC also argues that reporting apprentice hours is an administrative burden. But those statistics are available through documentation already required on public works projects, such as certified payroll reporting. AGC also asserts it will add extra costs to a project. Starting wages for apprentices are usually 50%-60% of the journey-level wage. How does paying less than prevailing wage add costs to a project?

The AGC suggests that not all trades have apprenticeship programs. But the Washington State Department Labor & Industries publishes a 39-page listing that includes all construction crafts.

The main objection is the false accusation that non-union contractors lack access to apprentices or apprenticeship programs. By state law, all apprenticeship programs are open to any employer willing to abide by the standards of the program. There is no requirement to have a union agreement. In fact, state law expressly forbids it: “(Apprenticeship programs) must not require an employer to sign a collective bargaining agreement as a condition of participation in an apprenticeship program.”

If non-union contractors have avenues to obtain apprentices, why don’t they? Here are some observations by the Pierce County Building Trades:

Apprenticeship education comes at a cost. Union employees make hourly contributions to apprenticeship funds to pay for the next generation of workers. These hourly contributions range from a few cents to dollars per hour. Responsible contractors view apprenticeship education as an investment in their companies’ future and are willing to pay good wages and benefits to retain a pool of skilled workers. Non-union companies may take the short-sighted simplistic view that apprenticeship simply adds to their construction costs, and therefore want to avoid it. Unions, their signatory contractors and other responsible contractors are willing to make this investment to meet the demands of the future construction workforce.

Non-union contractors may view apprenticeship as supporting unions and thus training future union workers. Union programs accept applications from anyone interested in becoming a skilled crafts worker. The applicants are assessed, tested and interviewed. The best applicants are then accepted as needed to fill industry demand. Upon graduation, most workers continue their union membership, understanding the advantages of representation. Some do not. The choice belongs to the individual. Apprenticeship education is a delivery model that has proven successful in training construction workers. The question must be asked, however, where are non-union contractors getting their workers? Why are they unwilling to invest in the next generation?

Apprenticeship programs in Washington are regulated by the Department of Labor & Industries and overseen by the State Apprenticeship Training Council, which has representation from management, labor and government. They have the power to disallow programs that abuse apprentices or fail to provide high quality education opportunities. Perhaps non-union contractors are uncomfortable with this kind of oversight.

Construction Workforce Development in Tacoma/Pierce County

Tacoma/Pierce County is well placed to be a leader in apprenticeship education. Home to two technical colleges, Bates and Clover Park, the area has the capacity to expand existing programs. What is needed are projects for apprentices to apply their training. With this capacity to train, we could become a center of skilled construction crafts workers the industry is seeking.

In addition, we have the unique opportunity to recruit applicants from the area’s returning military personnel. The Helmets to Hardhats program, sponsored by the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department, connects interested military veterans to our local apprenticeship programs.

Apprentices earn a living while completing their education. Most apprentices start at wages exceeding twice the minimum wage and earn good medical and pension benefits. They start families, buy cars and homes, and unlike college students who may or may not stay in the area upon graduation, these apprentices put down roots in the local community.

Apprenticeship utilization standards are a win-win for Pierce County, benefiting working families and responsible contractors, at no cost to taxpayers. We urge its implementation on the Chambers Creek Regional Water Treatment Plant upgrade.

Mark P. Martinez is Executive Secretary of the Pierce County Building & Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached via email at or by calling 253-475-7441.



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