Report Looks at Role of Apprenticeship in Filling Pennsylvania Construction Jobs

Diana Polson |
Go here to read the full report.

Executive Summary: After a deep industry decline in and after the Great Recession, the Pennsylvania construction industry has in the last several years again faced a shortage of skilled craft workers. This shortage could grow more severe in the years ahead due to an aging construction workforce, leading to high rates of retirement. Since the early 1990s, the share of the Pennsylvania construction industry workers aged 40 and over has risen from less than a third to nearly half.

In the context of emerging skills shortages, this report evaluates the role of apprenticeship training in meeting Pennsylvania’s need for skilled construction workers, relying primarily on official government data. The report highlights the distinction between apprenticeship programs governed by joint committees of labor and management, hereafter referred to as joint or union programs, and programs governed unilaterally by individual employers or employer associations (non-union programs).

  • Union programs account for nearly six out of every seven construction apprentices in Pennsylvania. Over the 2000 to 2016 period, 85 percent of construction apprentices in Pennsylvania participated in joint labor management programs and 15 percent in non-union, management-only, programs.
  • Union programs account for nine out of every 10 Pennsylvania construction apprentices who are not white and male. Union programs had 4,883 non-white and Hispanic male construction apprentices from 2000 to 2016 and non-union ones had 568. Over this same period, 1,083 female apprentices participated in union programs, and 83 females participated in non-union programs.
  • Union apprenticeship programs graduate more than six veterans for every one veteran graduated by nonunion programs. Nearly 3,000 (2,749) veterans have participated in union construction apprenticeship programs in Pennsylvania since 2000, compared to 516 veterans who participated in non-union ones.
  • Graduation rates are higher in union apprenticeship programs, including for minorities, women, and veterans. Of those enrolled in union apprenticeship programs from 2000 to 2012, 56% had completed their apprenticeship by 2016, compared to a completion rate of 44% for non-union programs. For minority male and female apprentices, and for veterans, graduation rates were about 25% higher for union apprenticeship programs than non-union.
  • Wage rates at entry and especially at completion are higher in union apprenticeship programs. Starting wages for union apprentices are 36% higher than for non-union apprentices. Upon completion (or “exit”), the union apprentice pay premium compared to non-union apprentices climbs to 60%.
  • Higher shares of blue-collar union trades in Pennsylvania have a two- or four-year college degree than nonunion trades and the share of blue-collar union trades with a college degree has risen to one in four. The share of unionized blue-collar trades that have a two-year or four-year college degree has more than doubled since the early 1990s, to just over 25%. The share of non-union trades that have a college degree has also risen but remains 10 percentage points below the union share.

Despite higher recent enrollment, especially in union programs, the roughly 3,000 individuals completing Pennsylvania construction trade apprenticeships in the last several years remains low compared to the annual number of job openings projected in construction occupations (5,406).1 This underscores the importance of expanding enrollment in construction apprenticeship programs as older workers retire at high rates. Since union apprenticeship programs have outperformed non-union ones on every measure of program success, further bolstering union apprenticeship programs appears the most promising route to meeting future construction industry skill needs. This report highlights three ways to bolster construction apprenticeships.

1. Construction apprenticeships should continue to make it easier to acquire a college degree as well as a journey worker card and to market themselves as the cheapest route to a college degree and to a good-paying career.

As noted above, a growing share of unionized construction trades in Pennsylvania has a two- or a four-year college degree. This reflects the fact that many union apprenticeship programs now have articulation agreements with post-secondary educational institutions, as well as that a few apprenticeships have gained accreditation themselves as a post-secondary. The college affordability crisis and the high debt levels of college graduates in Pennsylvania make the apprenticeship “earn as you learn” and free tuition model even more attractive. They give construction apprenticeship programs the opportunity to market themselves not as an alternative to college but as a path to a family-sustaining career AND the cheapest route to college.

2. Ensure that high-quality apprenticeships qualify for state subsidies as part of any expansion of state support for post-secondary education, such as “The Pennsylvania Promise.”

In response to the college affordability crisis, a growing number of states have free college tuition programs or proposals, sometimes called “college promise” programs. In Pennsylvania itself, Keystone Research Center earlier this year advanced a proposal for free college tuition called the Pennsylvania Promise. Any future Pennsylvania free college tuition proposal should incorporate support for students to enroll in high-quality apprenticeships articulated with college credit and degrees, such as joint apprenticeship programs. While these are already free to students, state support would make it possible to cover remaining out-of-pocket costs (e.g., for books and tools), increasing access for low-income students. State direct support to joint apprenticeships to cover the costs of making tuition free would also enable these programs to grow to meet employer demand and to increase economic opportunity. Such expansion could be particularly valuable in rural parts of Pennsylvania that lack brick-and-mortar community colleges.

3. Strengthen peer learning among Pennsylvania apprenticeship programs, including on alignment with postsecondary education, increasing diversity, and pipelines into apprenticeship.

Joint construction apprenticeship programs are embedded within regional, state, and national networks that promote peer learning within and across apprenticeship programs. Opportunities exist in the next few years to build on existing peer learning including in the following three areas.

Integration with higher education – assessment, pedagogy, and curriculum: The formal process through which the Finishing Trades Institute (FTI) based in Philadelphia became a post-secondary education led to significant upgrades in quality, including in its assessment practices (evaluating what students are learning), curriculum, and pedagogy. The lessons learned by FTI and other leading apprenticeship programs that have deeply integrated with higher education should be spread more widely.

Best diversity practices. Joint apprenticeship programs in Pennsylvania have made unrecognized improvements in diversity over the past two decades. Examples include the Pittsburgh “Intro to the Trades” program described in Box 3; “economic opportunity” plans on Philadelphia construction projects that set—and usually meet—ambitious goals for minority workforce and apprentice shares; and Reading Pennsylvania “Youth Build” and high school pre-apprenticeship programs. Today’s high construction demand and the aging of the unionized workforce provide a good context for additional progress on diversity as well as for spreading best practices in this area across apprenticeship programs and regions within Pennsylvania.

Pipelines into apprenticeship. The Wolf Administration in Pennsylvania is currently seeking to strengthen high-school career and technical education (CTE) and pre-apprenticeship programs, including by linking them better to actual apprenticeship and to employers with good-paying jobs. In construction, these efforts should focus on unionized apprenticeship programs. Increased investment in pipeline programs should be accompanied by identification and spread of best practices that increase the return on investment in such programs.

To capitalize on these and other peer learning opportunities, the Pennsylvania Apprenticeship and Training Office could commission the development of a five-year “capacity building plan” for construction apprenticeship programs in partnership with the Pennsylvania Apprenticeship Coordinators Association.

Read the full report.