On March 10, the U.S. Department of Labor granted the construction industry a permanent exemption from Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs, otherwise known as IRAPs.
The exemption was a huge win for the union construction industry and their signatory contractors, who 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 and has consistently produced the safest, most highly trained and most highly skilled construction workforce.
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.
In its final ruling, the DOL acknowledged the quality, availability and longevity of the building trades registered apprenticeship programs as the main reasons for granting the permanent exemption.
“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.”
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.
For members of the building trades, their historic response in the summer of 2019 has helped document the registered apprenticeship programs used by the union construction industry as the gold standard.
“With the issuance of the final rule, we now see that we were able to protect our industry’s successful programs,” McGarvey said. “Given the widespread and effective nature of our privately financed and jointly managed registered programs for the construction industry, the final rule recognizes our rightful place as the standard bearer in the workforce development space.”
Sheet Metal Workers Local 24 thanks all members, signatory contractors, family members and friends who submitted comments to the DOL against IRAPs in the construction industry. Your actions helped to make a difference.