As recently as June 2, the Association of General Contractors was urging lawmakers and other officials to address the ongoing shortage of qualified construction workers “by funding and re-invigorating career and technical education programs.”
It seems they listened.
President Trump signed an executive order on June 15 to significantly expand apprenticeships and vocational training. The order encourages the Secretary of Labor to propose regulations promoting the development of apprenticeship programs by third parties, such as trade associations, unions and other industry groups, as well as guidelines regulating such development.
“There are six million job openings in the United States,” commented U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta on the announcement. “This is the highest number of job vacancies on record. American companies want to hire Americans, and Americans want to work. Apprenticeships teach the skills needed to find good jobs and to succeed in those jobs. Apprentices are a proven pathway to helping businesses find the workers they need, while helping workers launch prosperous careers without the crushing burden of student debt.”
Critics of the announcement, however, question how the order will be financed given the recent announcement that funds for job training would be significantly cut under Trump's proposed 2018 budget.
More Apprenticeships, But Are Students Interested?
Data from ApprenticeshipUSA indicates recent growth in apprenticeship programs around the country. In FY 2016, more than 206,000 individuals entered the U.S. apprenticeship system, bringing the total to over 505,000 apprentices. It’s an increase of 13 percent from the year prior, growth made possible in part by annual funding for apprenticeships signed into law by President Obama in 2015. Of those more than 500,000 active apprentices, approximately 144,583 were in construction.
However, the construction industry’s continued lack of skilled workers coming into the industry is made more profound by recent evidence that Millennial workers don’t see construction as a profitable pursuit. The latest case in point: a poll from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) of Americans ages 18-to-25 in which 64 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t consider working in construction even if paid $100,000 or more.
“It is time for elected officials to get the word out to students that construction offers high-paying jobs with upward mobility,” says Stephen E. Sandherr, AGC’s chief executive officer. “The best way to deliver that message is to provide the funding and flexibility to set up programs that expose more students to the opportunities that exist in construction careers.”
Trump’s order would promote apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships to high school students and Job Corps participants, among others. It would also support community colleges and other higher education institutions in incorporating apprenticeship training into their coursework.
Given recent research from the Department of Education that indicates that students holding occupational credentials hold jobs at higher rates than those holding academic credentials, today’s Millennials might be ready to take a second look at construction apprenticeships, and “earn while they learn.”
Barriers to the Order’s Implementation
Cost is at the heart of the issue for critics of the executive order. Make no mistake, there are no detractors to boosting apprenticeship programs. But critics argue that the planned increase in funding for the Department of Labor’s existing ApprenticeshipUSA program to a whopping total of $200 million a year would not be enough to offset the previously planned cuts announced in Trump's 2018 budget. Specifically, Trump had introduced a 39% cut to funding provided to job training programs under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The budget would shift responsibility for funding these services to localities, states, and employers.
Others point out that the order may ultimately result in weak or uneven training programs. Critics warn that the term “industry-recognized” apprenticeships could lessen quality standards by limiting the government’s role in overseeing companies that sponsor apprenticeships. However, with funding uncertain and research into the best execution of this order in the planning stages, it is far too early to determine the true impact the latest apprenticeship funding may have on the construction industry’s future workforce.
Then there’s the fact 505,000 is a long shot from where Trump is heading. CNBC.com is among those holding Trump to a March challenge from Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff to create 5 million apprenticeships in the next five years. "Let's do that — let's go for that 5 million," Trump responded at the time.
While the number may be overly ambitious given the more staid rate at which apprenticeships have been added in recent years, why not shoot for the moon? Construction companies need skilled labor and the strongest solution to this challenge is by providing that on-the-job training to new generation of eager-to-learn apprentices.