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January 2022

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Union Apprenticeships Rival Four-Year Degrees,
Says New Study

A new study by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found that a union apprenticeship may be a better ticket to the middle class than a traditional four-year degree.

"College is a great option for some, but it's not the only path to a family-sustaining career, nor is it necessarily the best," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "For a lot of people, a union apprenticeship is the smarter, more fulfilling way to go — and it doesn't come with thousands of dollars in student loans."

The study analyzed 10 years of data from the Current Population Survey's Annual Social and Economic Supplement, which is released by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Census Bureau. Among its findings was that, on average, graduates of joint labor-management, or union, apprenticeship programs in the construction industry can achieve near wage and benefits parity with other types of workers with four-year college degrees.

"The data reveals that broad stigmas that have long been associated with vocational training alternatives to college are simply not grounded in fact," said study co-author and ILEPI Policy Director Frank Manzo IV to the construction publication Contractor. "Compared with two- and four-year colleges, joint labor-management apprenticeships in construction deliver a more robust training regimen, similar diversity outcomes, competitive wage and benefit levels, and comparable tax revenue for states and local governments, while leaving graduates entirely free of burdensome student loan debt."

The study stresses the importance of the apprenticeship being run through a union in order to truly rival a bachelor's degree. A nonunion program tends to produce outcomes more on par with just a high school diploma. Regarding wages, union construction workers earn $58,000 per year on average, compared to just $39,700 for nonunion workers. And almost 90% of union construction workers have private health insurance compared with just 55% of nonunion workers.

With the increased income also comes higher contributions in federal income taxes, payroll taxes and state income taxes, with union members paying more than their nonunion counterparts as well as more than those with an associate degree.

"The data unequivocally shows that attending college is not the only pathway into the American middle class," Manzo told Contractor. "However, it is clear that the most viable such pathway in construction runs through the joint labor-management apprenticeships and the unionized side of the industry."

The report also found that union apprenticeships are more racially diverse than nonunion programs and that they typically require 27% to 41% more hours of training than public four-year universities. And a union apprenticeship doesn't come with the nearly $40,000 in debt that is the average loan obligation for college students.

The study backs up similar findings regarding what it takes to earn a living wage. A recent study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce found that a growing number of people without a bachelor's degree are now out-earning those with one.

The Georgetown report suggests that a student's field of study, the type of job they're training for and where they live can affect their earnings more than their choice of degree.

"Your specific education has its value and the value varies enormously," said Tony Carnevale, one of the report's authors, to NPR. "That's why somebody who can do air conditioning will make more than somebody who becomes a schoolteacher."

Portland, Ore., Local 48 member Isis Harris told NPR that no one ever talked about apprenticeships when she was in high school and that she wishes she had found her way to becoming an electrician sooner.

"I think there was always a misconception about trade workers and skilled trades and the viability of that career and how it could actually provide the same type of lifestyle that a bachelor's [could]," Harris said.

A way to correct that misconception, say the Georgetown authors, is to employ more career counselors who can let students know about all of their options, not just college.

"The simple advice to high school students to 'go to college' no longer suffices," the authors wrote.

Harris graduated from her apprenticeship in December and now has a job where she's earning about $100,000 a year, enough to support herself and her son. And with the skilled worker shortage, she's all but guaranteed to get as much work as she wants. Some 321,000 construction jobs went unfilled in July, reported the New York Times. And with the recent passage of the infrastructure bill, even more workers will be needed to fill the growing demand. And those workers, if they're union members, will also have a proven path to the middle class.

"Having a decent wage or a nice income, you can do some financial planning," Harris told NPR. "You can save some money. You can plan for emergencies. You can do all those things that may not be tangible when you're living paycheck to paycheck."


A new study shows how a union apprenticeship rivals a four-year degree.

New Federal Worker Guidelines
Announced on Union Rights at Work

New guidelines to encourage federal workers to join unions were announced by Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Department Secretary Marty Walsh in October, continuing an administration-wide effort to promote union membership in the workplace.

The two executive actions from the Office of Personnel Management center on educating members of the federal workforce about their bargaining rights at work. The federal government is the country's largest employer, with more than 2.1 million non-postal employees, but only 20% of them belong to a union.

"Being the largest employer in the nation — I think people sometimes forget that — the federal government has a responsibility to lead by example when it comes to labor rights and to make sure that all federal jobs are good jobs," OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said at the event announcing the new guidelines.

One of the executive actions focuses on new and prospective hires. Under the guidance, agencies are urged to inform them about the collective bargaining status and union affiliation associated with each position, and to include that information in job announcements. Agencies should also provide these details to new hires during the orientation process and make information available on how employees can become dues-paying members.

"We want to ensure that job applicants and new employees receive this information about their rights on day one," Ahuja said.

The other action urges agencies to remind current employees of their rights under the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Act on a quarterly or biannual basis. The information should explain how employees can become active union members and include contact information for their local bargaining unit representatives.

"Every federal employee should know their bargaining rights, how to contact their union and where to find this information," Ahuja said. "I know this sounds all very basic and straightforward, but these are things we want to make sure are happening across federal government."

The new actions stem from an executive order President Joe Biden signed in April that created a White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment to encourage collective bargaining. Both Harris and Walsh are co-chairs.

Government Employees Director Paul O'Connor says that the IBEW is already doing much of what these new actions call for.

"The IBEW does a much better job than most other unions when it comes to organizing new employees in federal sector open shops," O'Connor said. "Federal employees need to know their rights. They need to know how and where to access information. And it is always helpful when a president's administration understands the value of labor unions and takes steps to educate employees on those values."

However, O'Connor also noted the less-than-direct language in the orders and how limiting that can be.

"I see words like 'urging agencies' and 'strongly encourage agencies.' Nothing in the executive order or OPM guidance requires agencies to do anything. The successful implementation of the order will correlate directly with the quality of the labor-management relationships at the local level. That is historically how this type of language plays out."

Another aspect of the executive actions is that they only last as long as a president's prerogative.

"It's easy for agencies to wait out such passive language until the next administration comes along and changes things back," O'Connor said. "This is actually a huge issue in the federal sector. Executive orders are invoked and revoked at the drop of a hat, including labor-management partnerships, dramatically changing rules and policies with such regularity it is all but impossible to maintain a workplace where employees are respected and valued, where employee motivation and morale remain positive.

"Real, substantive change needs to be institutionalized. It needs to be codified by Congress where it cannot be so easily revoked by future administrations. Anything short of that continues to expose our federal-sector brothers and sisters to unscrupulous future administrations. We need look no further than the previous administration to understand the damage which can be imposed without strong, decisive legislation designed to protect our highly trained, highly skilled federal employees."

O'Connor says the IBEW, through its membership with the Federal Workers Alliance, is spearheading an initiative to do just that and strengthen existing legislation in the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Act.

"Executive orders have become the easy, immediate fix, but without legislation to codify these actions, those fixes will remain fleeting," O'Connor said.


New federal worker guidelines were announced in October to promote union education and participation, led by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Credit: The White House