Last modified: Monday, July 12, 2004
IU study: Union apprenticeship programs may be crucial in future development projects
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- While a number of large-scale construction projects soon will be under way in Indiana -- particularly in central Indiana -- a new Indiana University study highlights the importance of union apprenticeship programs as a means of heading off a potential shortage of skilled labor.
In a study for the IU Institute for the Study of Labor in Society, Jeff Vincent, research director at the IU Division of Labor Studies on the Bloomington campus, found that similar, non-union programs were less effective in placing people in well paying jobs, faced challenges with retention and were a less popular training option as a result.
A number of major construction projects are planned for central Indiana, including a new midfield terminal at Indianapolis International Airport, condominiums on the site of Market Square Arena and new highways. A recent report issued by the Indiana Construction Roundtable concluded that central Indiana will face potential construction craft labor shortages over the next several years.
"Every few years, there is a great upsurge in concern over labor shortages in construction," Vincent said. "The apprenticeship programs typically have met that demand, and they have done a pretty remarkable job in being resilient enough to look at and anticipate market demand. There are concerns now because of stagnated wages and whatever competing job opportunities there might be for someone to work in other industries."
Apprenticeship programs provide theoretical and practical training through a combination of classroom training and four to five years of on-the-job training. The apprentice and the program sponsor enter into a contractual agreement that stipulates conditions of employment and the duration of training. Written terms of indenture are required for all programs in Indiana that are registered by the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training.
"It used to be that all of the people who were presumed not to be college-bound were directed into some vocational track. The problem has been that the communication of demand and expectations for school readiness haven't filtered through," he added.
In other words, fewer young people realize that the same math and reading skills needed to get into college also are necessary for a first-year apprenticeship program. Anti-discrimination laws, designed to open up opportunities for older workers, have created an even more competitive environment for a limited number of spaces in apprenticeship programs.
As policy makers and others look to meet the demand for workers, it is important to consider the lengthy lag time between when people enter and leave apprenticeship programs, Vincent said.
In the study, Vincent found evidence for divergent labor development strategies between union apprenticeship programs and those sponsored by Associated Builders and Contractors. According to 2003 labor statistics, unions enrolled 7,285 persons or 83 percent of people in construction apprenticeships, compared to 1,491 or 17 percent in ABC programs.
The most successful ABC program in terms of enrollment was for electricians, but it enrolled less than 36 percent of the total number of electrical apprentices in Indiana.
"That has a lot to do with job opportunities," Vincent said. "For somebody to invest their time and training, if there's some reasonable assurance at the end of that training that they're going to make a wage commensurate with that investment, that's more likely to attract people. That explains much of the difference."
Union apprenticeship programs were preferred by people in three groups that have been the target of recent efforts to increase their participation: women, minorities and veterans.
Three percent of union apprentices were women, while 0.5 percent of women chose to train in an "open shop" or ABC environment. The largest numbers of female apprentices were in laborer, painter, electrician, operating engineer and painter programs.
Minorities accounted for 9.4 percent of those enrolled in a union program and 0.8 percent in the ABC program. They tended to enroll in electrician, roofer, carpenter, plumber and labor programs.
A difference in veteran enrollment -- 6.8 percent in union programs and 0.5 percent in non-union programs -- may be attributed to the fact that in 1998, the State Approving Agency withdrew approval of ABC programs in Indiana. SAA approval is required for veterans who are eligible for GI Bill educational benefits.
The data was limited in that it did not include information about how well the programs functioned or retained students.
"This study makes no claim about the relative quality between union and ABC programs," Vincent concluded in his report. "However, even if the sentiment is by no means universal, it seems clear that open shop employers place a lower priority on developing craft skills than do union employers."