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Report says union construction apprentices fare better than some degrees, employer-only training

A person with thier blond hair tied up in a bun on their head, saftey goggles and a mask is leaning forward at an almost 90 degree angle, using a tool to practice welding on a piece of metal as sparks fly out.
FILE PHOTO: Justin Hicks
IPB News
About 43 percent of apprentices who started a joint union-employer program between 2010 and 2015 finished their program and got a credential, according to the report.

Construction apprenticeships are seen by many experts, business leaders and government officials as a great alternative to traditional degrees. And they say it is desperately needed as infrastructure investments ramp up and the industry faces a significant workforce shortage.

A new report emphasizes construction apprenticeships’ role as a pathway to the middle class. It also says students fare better in union-affiliated apprenticeships. One of Indiana’s biggest employer-only apprenticeship providers disagrees with that part of the report’s findings, but gives little evidence to back that up.

The reportis an analysis of federal data on registered apprenticeships conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois and the Midwest Economic Policy Institute(MEPI), an Illinois-based think tank often derided as “pro-union” by critics.

“Joint” programs that involve a partnership between a union and employers invest more in training than their employer-only counterparts, according to the report. And federal data separate from the report shows that joint construction programs in Indiana and nationally take on hundreds more apprentices than the employer-only programs each year since at least 2013.

Frank Manzo co-authored the report as an economist with MEPI.

“Really the top line of all of it is that apprenticeships are the bachelor's degrees of the construction industry and are a great alternative to college,” Manzo said. “And in particular, joint labor management programs enroll eight out of every ten construction apprentices in Indiana, deliver more training hours, better diversity outcomes, no student debt and competitive earnings that rival the performance of Indiana's four-year universities.”

To be considered a “registered” construction apprenticeship, a program must be approved by the U.S. Department of Labor.

To get that approval, programs must meet certain standards, result in a nationally recognized credential and report data on students to the DOL. That includes demographic data, wage data and information about the student’s progress to completion.

The report released Tuesday used that data from 2010 to 2020 to compare Indiana’s registered joint union-employer construction apprenticeships, employer-only programs and more traditional degrees at post-secondary schools like Ivy Tech Community Colleges and the state’s four-year universities. Unregistered programs are not required to report data and therefore are not included in this analysis.

About 43 percent of apprentices who started a joint union-employer program between 2010 and 2015 finished their program and got a credential, according to the report. Joint program students who finished their program between 2015 and 2020 made an average of $31.28.

The report authors compared that to Indiana’s public universities. The graduation rate for students there was higher, but their average wages were marginally lower and those students walk away with more debt.

The joint apprenticeship completion rate beat Ivy Tech Community College’s 2013 six-year graduation rate of about 36 percent (excluding the college’s own registered apprenticeship programs). Students there walk away with less debt than their university counterparts, but the average hourly wages between 2011 and 2020 for associate degree-holders was about $22.60.

The report said Indiana’s employer-only apprenticeships had a similar completion rate to Ivy Tech’s graduation rate. The average hourly wages for apprentices who completed one of those programs between 2015-2020 was $17.47.

Robert Bruno co-authored the report and is a professor and director of the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He attributes the difference in completion rates and wages between joint and employer-only programs to the investment put in by the program.

“There is far more money spent per apprentice in the union setting than in the non-union setting,” Bruno said. “You're getting more. You're getting better working environments for those apprentices. You're investing more money in the tools that they're getting [and] curriculum instruction they're going to be exposed to.”

READ MORE: Considering an apprenticeship in Indiana? This guide can help you get started

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The report points out that apprenticeships run by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of Indiana-Kentucky’s only had about 27 percent of students from the 2010-2015 cohort complete programs. And it said those students' average hourly wages were $14.22 upon completion, less than half the average hourly wage of joint program students.

ABC is one of the largest employer-only registered apprenticeship providers in Indiana and is often labeled “anti-union” by its critics.

ABC Indiana-Kentucky director JR Gaylor claimed in an interview the report is inaccurate, “pro-union propaganda.” He said ABC’s Indiana apprenticeship programs had a four year retention rate of “60 percent.” That, he said, showed that the report’s 30 percent completion rate was wrong.

Gaylor said he “considers” retention rate to be the same as a completion rate because ABC apprenticeships take about four years to complete.

But the report was only counting apprentices who got a credential as completed. Gaylor didn’t clarify how many of those “retained” students successfully got a credential after the four years. ABC did not answer multiple followup questions seeking that clarity.

Gaylor also said that the federal data counts union and non-union apprenticeship data differently, leading to some ABC students likely being counted as “dropped” each time they switch between contractors during the course of the apprenticeship.

MEPI’s Frank Manzo responded in defense of the analysis, and said it is not true the data does not count each switch between contractors within the same apprenticeship program as a student “dropping.” The Institute said if any such miscount were to occur, it would be because ABC inputted the data incorrectly. And that would be unlikely, Manzo said, because the DOL would catch and fix any such mistakes in the data.

A spokesperson for the DOL said staff were looking into Indiana Public Broadcasting’s request to clarify whether such a miscount is possible, but they did not respond in time for publication. The publicly available data did not seem to support ABC’s claims.

Gaylor also disputes the report’s finding on wages, and said that most ABC apprentices get starting wages that would make finishing at $14.22 not possible, because ABC apprentices get raises every 1,000 hours of training.

But Gaylor was not able to provide more exact wage information in the interview and ABC did not respond to follow up requests for that information.

He argues the two types of programs' average wages shouldn’t be compared at all because unions set standard rates through collective bargaining.

“All of our members pay a different rate,” he said. “So to compare a one-rate, union-only rate with hundreds of separate contractors, you really can't make that comparison at all.”

But Gaylor and the report’s authors agree that generally, construction apprenticeships open an important pathway to the middle class for Indiana workers without the debt of a traditional degree.

Adam is our labor and employment reporter. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB.

Adam is Indiana Public Broadcasting's labor and employment reporter. He was born and raised in southeast Michigan, where he got his first job as a sandwich artist at Subway in high school. After graduating from Western Michigan University in 2019, he joined Michigan Radio's Stateside show as a production assistant. He then became the rural and small communities reporter at KUNC in Northern Colorado.