The Value of Apprenticeships by Sean McGarvey

Published on the San Francisco Chronicle website on 11/4/2015

Debt-free degrees are a pipe dream — but not the kind you’re thinking of. Each year, 170,000 Americans enroll in apprenticeship programs to learn trades — such as pipe-fitting, bricklaying and plumbing — that will catapult them to the middle class. These tradesmen-in-training not only avoid crippling student debt, they “earn while they learn.” And because apprenticeships are privately funded, they do so without costing taxpayers a dime.

There’s no better time to scale up apprenticeships. The gap between American employer demands and American workforce talent is large and growing. According to a survey of about 850 small-business owners and corporate executives, one-third of businesses can’t find the right job candidates. That number is increasing from a couple of years ago.

This skills gap could grow to economically disastrous proportions. According to research from Georgetown University, the United States will be short 5 million well-qualified workers by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, student debt is ballooning.

For the average young person, an apprenticeship with a firm is a much more cost-effective way of acquiring job skills than a traditional college degree. Rather than acquire debt, apprentices earn wages that amount to 50 to 60 percent of a certified tradesman. Once apprentices graduate, they often land starting salaries of $50,000 a year, according to the Department of Labor.

The personal payoff only gets better: An average apprenticeship program graduate is one-quarter of a million dollars richer, in lifetime wages, than a comparable worker without such training.

Meanwhile, newly minted college grads face, on average, a crushing $30,000 loan burden. That lump sum has gotten 25 percent heftier since 2008. Threequarters of alumni of private, nonprofit colleges have student loans, and nearly 90 percent of alums from for-profit schools do.

Apprenticeships don’t have to replace the college experience. In fact, an apprentice who wants to head back to college already has a head start. In the building trades, apprentices can apply their training toward a traditional associate or bachelor’s degree.

Apprenticeship programs also deliver significant value for employers. The average employer sees returns of as much as $3 for every $1 invested in training. Those gains arise because craft laborers are more productive, work more safely and deliver top-notch workmanship.

In short, apprentices are a win-win. Employers get workers who are adaptable enough to meet the exact needs of specific construction projects, and apprentices develop the in-demand skills that lead to secure employment.

Perhaps no group benefits as much from apprenticeship programs as our nation’s military veterans. Through our “Helmets to Hardhats” program, we are helping these warriors transition back into civilian life.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, policymakers should turn to a training infrastructure that’s worked for decades. For a thriving economy, we need to double the number of American apprentices.

Citizens should press their governments and community-based organizations to partner with their local building trades unions to enact robust apprenticeship readiness programs—especially ones that give communities of color, women and veterans a leg up on the ladder to the middle class.

It’s time our leaders embrace and expand access to the “other four-year degree.”

Sean McGarvey is the president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, which operates more than 1,600 training centers across the United States. These centers are privately funded by members and contractor partners through collectively bargained contributions in excess of $1 billion per year.

Link to the article: http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Apprenticeships-offer-debt-free-job-training-6611434.php

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