The Role of Trade Unions in the US Apprenticeship Arena

The Role of Trade Unions in the US Apprenticeship Arena

An Interview with Dr. John Gaal, Director of Training & Workforce Development, STL-KC Carpenters Regional Council

You run apprenticeship programs in the states. What is the role of trade unions in delivering high quality programs?

I have served as the Director of Training & Workforce Development for the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council since 2003. As such, I superintend nine training schools in three Midwest states: MO, KS, and IL. These locations serve >15 post-secondary registered apprenticeship programs (RAPs) mainly covering carpentry, cabinetmaking, millwright, and floor laying occupations.

Trade unions in the US play a vital role in some of the most effective and efficient RAPs overseen by the United States Department of Labor’s (US-DOL) Office of Apprenticeship (OA). To be clear, these RAPs are not union-run programs! Back in 1947, Congress (Taft-Hartley Act) changed national labor laws to ensure that both labor and management had an equal voice at the board table. Although the Fitzgerald Act of 1937 serves as the basis for RAPs today, known as 29CFR29, joint apprenticeship programs (JAPs) are usually set up as trust funds under the aforementioned change in 1947. This is a key factor as to why these JAPs’ committees produce the best results when it comes to graduation rates and total compensation. Why? Because the JAP committee—made up of both labor and management representatives—is obliged to make decisions in the best interest of the industry on behalf of the apprentice!

Unions also play another important role. It is by means of a legal contract that both labor and management agree to terms and conditions of an hourly contribution for training purposes. The contract, in effect, becomes the collection vehicle for the employee/member benefit—known as training—which is administered by the trust fund mentioned above. More often than not, in the US construction industry, apprentices are indentured to the JAP…not a single contractor. This multi-employer model allows apprentices to work for any signatory contractor which, in turn, provides for a wide range of OJT learning opportunities. Therefore, when it comes to JAPs, the notion of “poaching” is virtually non-existent! (In the St. Louis area alone, more than $30m is “privately” invested annually into the +15 JAPs.) While, on the other hand, typically in the non-union arena, poaching remains a big issue as well as the quality of training most likely due to a lack of a trusted intermediary and willing partners (competitors). 

What do you think of the claim made by some that the trade unions can sometimes block progress?  

As with most any organization or issue, there are often good and bad characters impacting outcomes. In the US, nearly 70% of the registered apprentices are in the construction industry—of which, approximately 80% of those are in joint labor-management affiliated JAPs, as noted above. It is unfortunate that when so many people in the US hear the word “apprenticeship”, one of two things comes to mind: unions or construction. Growing RAPs in the US will require the US mindset to move beyond those paradigms…it does not have to be either! Nonetheless, construction-related union-affiliated JAPs are often held up as the model for RAPs in the US. In St. Louis alone, the Carpenters JAP provides nearly 150 career days, etc. annually at regional K-12 schools and other community gatherings. Due to global competition, most unions realize that in order to survive they need to grow their programs and expand their intake processes. This includes becoming more inclusive with regards to recruiting and retaining people of color, women ex-offenders, veterans, and people with disabilities. Nearly all these unions have recognized that their jointly trusted JAPs are their competitive advantage going forward and need to leverage it accordingly!

Interestingly, the JAPs receive very little to no federal funding to operate their JAPs. (In the interest of full disclosure, less than 5% of the Carpenters JAP’s budget in St. Louis is made up by the federal government.) Yet, companies looking to expand into the RAP ranks are being enticed by seed money from federal grants. Eventually, these funds will run out! Hopefully, US-DOL’s OA has a plan in place to ensure sustainability of these new RAPs. As a union representative and a trustee of the St. Louis JAP, I am concerned about this most important issue…some may view this as “blocking” progress. I prefer to consider it as being a good steward of the taxpayers’ funds. 

Do you have any advice for companies thinking of expanding their business in the USA? 

Without a doubt, I am a huge fan of the Apprenticeship 2000 (A2000) model in Charlotte, NC. Other than in the US constructions trades’ JAPs, the European influence of apprenticeship has been around since the mid-1990s. As noted above, intermediaries are integral to the growth of RAPs in the US. The difficult piece will be the time spent developing better relationships within non-traditional and emerging industries. For without trust, the JAP (or intermediary) model will not be sustainable. In my opinion, it is in the best interest of all industry stakeholders (i.e., companies, workers, training & education providers, and communities) to examine the pros and cons of a program like A2000. Upon investigation, they will find that German and Austrian advanced manufacturing firms operating in the US set aside their competitive differences in order to pool their talents and address the skills shortage issues in their area.

With that said, I think the best place to begin these discussions is within the K-12 school system. Far too often, in the US, the growth of RAPs is only viewed from the horizontal approach (i.e., expanding into other sectors like Health Care, etc.). In order to double the number of apprentices by 2019 this myopic approach simply will not work. We must embrace the concept of vertical growth as well! To this end, students in the upper-secondary grades are a ripe and captive audience for firms and industries as evidenced by the A2000 model…especially in light of the college debt crisis that looms in the US economy.

Finally, do you have any goal you’d like to achieve by the end of 2017?                   

I have a few goals I am working on concurrently:

Linking the RAPs with college/university pathways: Parents play a big role in steering their children towards post-secondary options. For the past +35 years too many US parents have embedded the notion that a college degree is the ticket to the middle class. This myth was dispelled after the 2007 Great Recession began. The idea of graduating apprentices four years after high school who earn +$35/hour and hold a college degree will surely connect with parents.

Furthermore, by coupling the US-DOL Journey-worker certificate with a college degree, the system adds value to the graduate’s future by providing options beyond one’s trade/industry.