Apprenticeships journeyman electrician1

Journeymen electrician Jeremy Meyer of Urbana installs electrical non-metallic tubing while working on wiring Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, at The Dean Campustown high-rise at being erected at Sixth and Green streets in Champaign.

Listen to this article

Apprenticeship programs in construction and other trades have long been seen as a pathway to good-paying jobs without the expense of a college degree.

A new study suggests they also rival the performance of state colleges and universities in terms of training hours, graduation rates, diversity and lifetime earnings for graduates.

The report from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois specifically singles out Illinois’ joint labor-management construction apprenticeship programs as a model that could be duplicated in other industries with high demand for skilled workers, such as IT, nursing or manufacturing.

The apprenticeships offer a path to the middle class, with access to jobs that pay $40 an hour, said Frank Manzo, policy director for the Illinois Economic Policy institute.

“For many young residents, vocational training may offer a better pathway to a stable job than college,” he said.

The report, “The Apprenticeship Alternative,” uses data from the U.S. Department of Labor to compare outcomes for apprenticeship programs with Illinois community colleges and four-year universities.

Joint labor-management apprenticeship programs have graduation rates of 54 percent, compared with about 66 percent for community colleges and 61 percent for Illinois public universities, it said.

The average starting wage for apprenticeship graduates is $19.15, about the same for those from community colleges and slightly less than the $26 for those with four-year degrees. But the average career wage is $40.40, higher than either of the other two categories, and lifetime earnings exceed $2.4 million, nearly equal to four-year programs, the report said.

Construction apprentices spend more than 7,300 hours in training, on par with four-year bachelor’s programs, the report said.

“Apprenticeships are the bachelor’s degrees of the construction industry,” Manzo said. “They are a great alternative for Illinois youth. They offer workers pathways into middle-class trades that are in high demand.

“Because of that, we need to remove the stigma of choosing a trade school or college by expanding pre-apprenticeship programs in public high schools and colleges, and by educating students, parents, teachers and counselors about them,” he said.

The authors also called on the state to promote a new apprenticeship education tax credit that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law in August. Senate Bill 1591 offers employers a tax credit of up to $3,500 to cover educational expenses for each qualifying apprentice, and up to $5,000 for those in underserved areas.

“This is an exciting new opportunity for employers to dive into the apprenticeship model,” Manzo said.

Growing demand

Currently, more than 85 percent of all apprentices in Illinois are in the construction sector, and 97 percent of them are enrolled in programs administered jointly by labor unions and their contractors, according to the study.

The authors argue that is the most effective model, as the programs are cooperatively administered and fully funded, with wages negotiated as part of a union contract. For every hour worked by an employee, a small amount is invested in an apprenticeship program to train the next generation, Manzo said.

The industry also has “employer-only” programs administered by companies or trade associations.

But they rely on voluntary contributions from contractors, who often have an incentive to forgo long-term workforce training investments to keep costs down so they can win project bids, Manzo said.

Apprenticeship programs have expanded con-siderably in Illinois in re-cent years. In 2018, the state had about 16,000 participants, up 34 percent since 2011, even as enrollment growth has slowed at many public universities in Illinois and across the country, Manzo said.

They offer a cost-effective alternative to public universities, where tuition costs have risen as state funding has declined, said UI Professor Robert Bruno, the study’s co-author and director of the Project for Middle Class Renewal. Apprentices pay minimal costs and don’t accumulate debt, he said.

At the same time, Illinois and other states are investing millions of dollars to upgrade bridges, roads and schools, providing job opportunities and incentives for people to go into the trades, Bruno said. With an eight-year economic expansion and the new $45 billion Rebuild Illinois program, demand continues to grow, Manzo said.

No taxpayer cost

Jarrett Clem, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 601 in Champaign, said 13 local trade unions offer apprenticeship programs that run from three to five years.

Education is free for the workers, who repay it over their career through the per-hour contribution to train future generations.

“You’re paying for the next guy behind you,” Clem said.

Apprentices are paid to work alongside a journeyman, getting raises as they learn more skills, he said. During the school year, they usually go to classes one or two nights a week.

The IBEW program takes in 12 to 18 new apprentices each year “depending on how much construction work there is,” with a total of 65 currently in the program, Clem said.

“We’re definitely building up our numbers. I think pretty much all the trades are,” Clem said.

Apprenticeship schools funded by unions and contractors would amount to the sixth- or seventh-largest educational institution in Illinois, all privately funded, the study said.

“It’s done without any cost to the taxpayer,” Bruno said. “It’s millions of dollars invested directly into nothing but education and training.”

Research has shown that the model is applicable to other occupations, Bruno said, giving workers a chance to acquire more skills and access to better-paying jobs.

It’s used in Las Vegas to train hotel and casino employees, Bruno said. And service workers in Chicago have teamed up with managers of condos and hotels to create an apprenticeship program where employees can move from janitorial work into higher-skilled positions, such as mechanics, he said.

Parkland’s pathways

In Champaign County, Parkland College and local school districts have been moving to reinvigorate career and technical education and beef up pre-apprenticeship programs that introduce students to various trades.

Pre-apprenticeship programs offer a “bridge” to help high school graduates learn the math, science, writing and problem-solving skills they need to be admitted to apprenticeships, Bruno said.

They also give students a credential to use when they’re interviewing for an apprenticeship position, said Bobbi Scholze, Parkland’s dean of career and technical education.

One program at Parkland and other community colleges, funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation, prepares students for careers in highway construction, in cooperation with local unions.

Parkland is also expanding partnerships with industry to provide new apprenticeship programs in manufacturing and information technology, Scholze said.

Parkland provides the classes, employers pay for the student’s instructional costs, and students earn an entry-level wage on the job where they are mentored by more seasoned employees, Scholze said. Once they complete the program, they get an industry-recognized credential, from a job certification to an associate degree, she said.

Parkland is taking part in a program funded by a $400,000 federal grant to the Illinois community college system to use the ICATT apprenticeship model — Industry Consortium for Advanced Technical Training — for high-tech manufacturers and companies with complex logistics. A project of the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest, it’s based on the German dual-education system of training students to work in specific industries. So far, three companies have signed up, Scholze said.

Another new federal grant will fund a program to develop IT apprenticeships in programming, networking and cybersecurity, she said. Employers who participate will receive $2,000 for each employee they sponsor. Parkland received $332,000 over four years for the program.

The college recently approved a “Google IT” pre-apprenticeship program designed to prepare students for entry-level jobs in IT support. They will earn a Google-issued industry credential as well as a Parkland certificate.

Parkland provides training in automotive technology for Ford employees and is developing apprenticeships in land-surveying and pesticide application, working with agricultural interests and the Illinois Association of Land Surveyors, Scholze said.

Electronics degree?

Parkland is working on agreements with local unions that would allow apprentices to get college credit for part of their training and ultimately earn a certificate or associate’s degree in electronics or another trade.

Students might take 15 credits in a particular discipline and 15 general education courses during their apprenticeship, so “by the time they’re done as a journeyman, they have 30 credits toward their associate’s degree,” Scholze said.

“They want their folks to get an associate’s degree,” she said.

The United States has primarily used the union model for apprenticeships, which works well, but other models can work, too, Scholze said.

“If you want to do this, and you’re not a union shop, you can still develop it,” she said.

Manzo said partnerships between colleges and employers are important, and the German/ICATT model is worth exploring to improve opportunities for students in community colleges who aren’t headed for construction jobs.

Joint labor-management programs aren’t a “panacea,” he said, but the report shows they’re a good model that has worked in Illinois and elsewhere and could offer a road map to improve the pool of skilled labor in other industries.

The U.S. Department of Labor has identified hundreds of occupations in growing industries that could benefit, including health care, IT, veterinary medicine and transportation, he said.

With a strong economy and record low unemployment, employers are “looking for ways to get the workers they need,” Manzo said.

Women, minorities making gains in representation

Historically, most apprenticeships have been concentrated in male-dominated industries, where women and minorities weren’t always welcomed, researchers say.

But U.S. Department of Labor data show that graduates increasingly reflect the racial diversity of Illinois, according to a new report by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the UI’s Project for Middle Class Renewal.

Women made up 3.7 percent of graduates from joint labor-management construction apprenticeships in 2017 and 12.9 percent of those in other fields — far below the 50 percent or more at colleges and universities.

But 9 percent of graduates were African American and 11 percent were Latino, similar to rates for the state’s public universities — 10 percent and 12 percent, respectively, the report said.

The change has been driven by several factors, including government pressure to diversify the programs dating back to the Carter Administration, said UI Professor Robert Bruno, a co-author.

Many minimum-wage jobs are disproportionately filled by women and minorities who see apprenticeships as an attractive option, especially as college costs continue to rise, he said.

“There’s been a real effort made within the trades to be more appealing to a diverse and inclusive work force,” he added.

Across the state, apprenticeship programs have reached out to community colleges, high school counselors and others to recruit applicants from diverse backgrounds.

Local unions also worked with the United Way and AFL-CIO to produce a booklet outlining the different trades and apprenticeship programs.

“In the past, we didn’t do a good job of going through the community. The only people who knew we existed were sons and daughters” of workers, said Jarrett Clem, business agent for IBEW Local 610 in Champaign.

“We’ve tried to reach out and say, ‘This is a great opportunity. You’ll have insurance, you’ll have a pension and a living wage.’”

While the percentage of women in the trades remains low, Bruno said, “what we now know is, when they get there, they’re very likely to graduate,” with completion rates exceeding their male counterparts (57.3 percent versus 54.1 percent).

A growing number of female plumbers, carpenters and laborers are now instructors in apprenticeships, giving female students a “symbol of what can be achieved,” he said.

The report called on the state to expand access to child care, a barrier to female participation, and urged apprenticeship programs to hire more minority instructors and develop mentoring programs for students from disadvantaged background.

Ensuring a workplace free of discrimination is also important, Bruno said.

Instructors, staff and apprentices now go through programs on preventing sexual discrimination and creating a welcoming, inclusive workplace — “something that was not true when I started this work over two decades ago.”

“There’s a lot still to be achieved,” he said, but “we’ve seen a real evolution.”


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).

Trending Videos