In mid-March, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a permanent exemption for the construction industry from Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs, otherwise known as IRAPs.
The March 10 announcement was a big win for the building trades, whose long-established and high quality registered apprenticeship programs separate themselves from non-union construction training programs.
“I thought it was wise for the federal government to leave IRAPs out of the construction industry,” said Columbus/Central Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Dorsey Hager.
IRAPs differ from registered apprenticeships because they are not regulated by the government and give employers – or an affiliated partner – the ability to train new construction workers without any regulations or governmental oversight.
Each year, members of the union construction industry and their signatory contractors combine to invest more than $1 billion in private sector money to fund and operate over 1,900 apprenticeship training and education facilities across North America. This ongoing commitment has been in place for roughly 80 years has consistently produced the safest, most highly trained and most highly skilled construction workforce.
“The Department has determined that programs that seek to train apprentices to perform construction activities, as described in section 29.30, will not be recognized as IRAPs. This is because the construction sector is unique in that its registered apprentice programs materially outnumber programs in other sectors, are widespread, and are well established and high quality. Thus, while the Department certainly believes that IRAPs and the registered apprenticeship system are complementary and can co-exist, there are sound reasons to tread more cautiously in the construction sector, as well as less urgency to the need to expand apprenticeship opportunities in that field.”
Had IRAPs been allowed, many labor trades leaders expressed concern they would cause irreparable harm to the union construction industry’s registered apprenticeships and cost union jobs. The belief was without any regulation or oversight, non-union contractors, including members of the Associated Building and Contractors (ABC), could retain apprentices, but pay them dramatically less, or create a permanent class of apprentices. Both scenarios would generate a competitive advantage when bidding on projects.
The DOL’s final ruling came more than six months after a 60-day comment period ended on Aug. 26. During this time, hundreds of thousands of Americans expressed their opinions that IRAPs do not belong in the construction industry.
“We appreciate the time spent by all – especially our rank and file members – who petitioned their government during the public comment period,” North America’s Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey said in a prepared statement. “Together with our industry partners, we will continue to invest in high-quality training standards that promote the well-being of apprentices and meet the demands of the industry.”
For Hager, the announcement was a relief.
“It was an extremely nervous six months for us and other industry leaders,” he said. “Who knows what they were thinking or debating behind closed doors.”
A total of 326,798 comments were submitted to the DOL, of which 17,761 were considered unique. The majority of the remaining 309,037 comments were letters associated with 290 form-letter campaigns. According to the DOL’s final ruling, almost all of the form-letter campaigns addressed the exclusion of the construction industry from IRAPs.
Many comments referenced how IRAPs would lead to a reduction in wages, the cutting of corners during construction and a reduced standard of safety on jobsites.
“We saw an outpouring of support that culminated in record level engagement by citizens in the public comment period that reiterated, both the need and ongoing support, for the Registered Apprenticeship system in the construction industry,” said McGarvey. “We are pleased that their voices were heard and that the final rule recognizes the protections for, and success of, registered apprenticeship in the construction industry.”
Hager credited the record level of comments with helping to secure the permanent IRAP industry exemption.
“I think it had a great deal to do with it. Sean, his staff, and the International Presidents are to be commended on their leadership in getting the responses in,” he added.