Guest Commentary: Apprenticeships beneficial to economy

Guest Commentary: Apprenticeships beneficial to economy


Students of all ages across our country are back to school.

And while there are many disputes about education policy, there is no disputing its fundamental purpose — to prepare Americans for the jobs of tomorrow.

In Illinois, our fastest growing industry is construction. And construction is projected to grow at twice the rate of Illinois' economy over the next decade, adding thousands of new middle-class jobs.

Accessing these jobs in the fastest-growing skilled trades typically requires at least three years of apprenticeship training. And new research from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows that the average impact of that training — in the form of increased earnings over an entire career — is greater than the effect of associate's degrees and many bachelor's degrees.

So what is an "apprenticeship?"

Apprenticeships have been around for nearly a century. They are governed by state and federal standards that ensure proper certification of graduates. Funded almost entirely by private entities such as employers, labor-management groups and unions, they require almost no out of pocket costs for students, and better yet, enable students to "earn while they learn" — collecting a paycheck while learning a skilled trade on the jobsite and in the classroom. Best of all, they ensure that our state has a pool of skilled tradespeople to meet our long-term infrastructure and building needs.

Currently, these programs serve nearly 11,000 Illinois residents, making it our state's seventh-largest private post-secondary educational enterprise. They also employ nearly 3,000 instructors and support staff. In our analysis, we found that the economic impact of program expenditures create nearly 1,400 jobs in the local economy, boost our state's economy by over $400 million and add nearly $30 million to state and local tax revenues.

But while these programs deliver at least $3 in value for every dollar invested, we are seizing only a fraction of the opportunity that skilled trade apprenticeships provide.

While the construction trades comprise almost 90 percent of skilled trade apprenticeships in Illinois, construction occupations only comprise about 10 percent of "apprenticeable occupations," according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And nationally, apprenticeship programs are on the decline.

There are many things that can be done to reverse this trend. But to do that, it's important to understand why the construction industry has been a leader in this arena.

Fully 98 percent of Illinois Construction apprenticeship programs are funded by joint labor-management programs. In other words, workers and employers have agreed to build workforce development investment into hourly wages, often through collective bargaining agreements.

And while there are certainly non-union contractors who recognize the imperative of making similar investments, it is fair to say that the majority simply pocket those dollars as profits. That is why we have seen a direct relationship between the decline in skilled trade apprenticeships and declining unionization. In the construction trades, we have apprenticeship investments plummet in states that eliminate prevailing wage standards because those standards are informed in part by collective bargaining agreements that prioritize workforce development.

Ultimately, the facts make it clear that not everyone is going to go to college. And for those who don't, our research shows that apprenticeship programs can make a huge difference in their lifetime earnings potential, and the pool of skilled talent that is needed to make our businesses competitive. But it takes a village to prepare the next generation for the jobs of tomorrow.

We need more outreach to encourage businesses to invest in these programs, or offer tax credits to those who do. This is something that South Carolina recently tried, boosting apprenticeships by 570 percent.

We need to address the crisis of child care that is a barrier for many mothers who might otherwise be able to participate in these programs.

We can invest in pre-apprenticeship programs in high schools — particularly disadvantaged schools — to provide more skill-training opportunities for our young people. Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago is already piloting one such program.

And finally, we need to reject counterproductive policy initiatives — such as efforts to repeal prevailing wage laws — which have proven to decimate these vital workforce training programs across the country.

Ultimately, education lies at the heart of so many of the challenges we face as a state and a country. We need to invest in providing more options that work. And it's clear that apprenticeships more than meet that standard.

Frank Manzo IV is policy director for the Illinois Economic Policy Institute in La Grange.