WASHINGTON — Completion rates for apprenticeship programs have been dropping across the board, and the U.S. Department of Labor doesn't really know why, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.
The report also states that completion rates are generally lower for open-shop programs, as is the pay for both apprentices and journeymen. GAO admonished the Labor Department for not keeping better track of apprenticeship programs in an industry likely to face future labor shortages.
The report refers to the programs as joint (jointly administered labor/ management) and non-joint (contractor administered).
Enrollments in construction apprenticeship programs more than doubled from 1994 to 1998, increasing from 20,670 construction apprentices to 47,487.3, the GAO report states. Meanwhile, completion rates declined from 59% for the class of 1994 to 37% for the class of 1998. Similar declines were recorded for both union and open-shop programs. Completion rates for joint apprentices dropped from nearly 63% to 42% and from 46% to 26% for nonjointapprentices. This trend was consistent across different occupations as well, with most experiencing declines.
Because the Labor Department does not systematically record the explanations that apprentices offer for dropping out of programs, it is difficult to determine what may lie behind this downward trend, GAO notes. Labor Department officials suggested that some apprentices might choose to acquire just enough training to make themselves marketable.
The report tracks apprentices that began training in 1994 to 1998 through six years of training up until 2004 when the 1998 class would have finished.
During that period, 52% of union plumbing apprentices completed training, compared with 31% of non-union apprentices, according to the report. The report notes that 55% of United Association pipefitter apprentices finished, as opposed to 30% of the openshop apprentices. For sheet metal workers, the percentages were 59% vs. 27%, and 61% of unionized heating and air conditioning installation and service trainees finished, compared with 29% for the open-shop group.
The report notes that the union-represented employees generally made more money, with a few exceptions. In 2004, the first year in which the Labor Department collected information on starting wages, apprentices in joint programs earned $12.28 per hour while non-joint apprentices earned $9.90 at the start of their apprenticeships.
These differences in wages were more pronounced at the journeyman level, with apprentices in joint programs scheduled to earn journey-level wages of $24.19 as compared with $17.85 for those in non-joint programs. Three trades — carpenter, structural steel worker and cement mason — had starting wages higher for nonjoint apprentices. For journeymanlevel wages, only one trade — millwright — had wages higher for non-joint apprentices.
"With completion rates at 47% for union programs and 30% for nonunion programs across all construction trades, there is reason to question what all apprentice programs might do to increase completion," said Merry Beth Hall, director of apprentice and journeyman training for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Educational Foundation, which sponsors open-shop programs. "Indeed, one of the factors that might influence completion is whether there is an ' incentive' for apprentices to complete the program. This raises the fundamental question of whether inconsistencies in state licensing laws contribute to lower completion rates in non-union apprenticeship programs.
"In a state without licensing requirements or with requirements of less than a four-or five-year program to be eligible to sit for a licensing exam, there is little incentive for an apprentice to complete a program other than personal satisfaction. Unions have an advantage by requiring a unilateral four-or fiveyear program of all students regardless of state licensing requirements."
The authors of the GAO report mentioned anecdotal evidence that union apprentices are more likely to stay on because the union provides mentoring and other social support and that networks of local unions can find enough work to keep apprentices on the job.
Mike Arndt, director of training for the United Association, said he believes that the UA shows apprentices that it's building a future for them.
"They see that we are serious," Arndt said. "We're not building just for a job but for a future. We're offering a way of life, a way to raise a family, to have a decent salary and decent benefits. To a certain extent, we are more successful keeping them working because of the product we're offering. We research not only what is the best way to get people to join the apprenticeship program, but how to offer the right kinds of things to keep them in the program."
Hall said she tends to agree with assertions by GAO that program quality may be a factor in whether apprentices, both union and non-union, complete the programs. To that end, PHCC and the Educational Foundation have been developing new apprentice program manuals for both students and instructors.
"On the HVACR side, PHCC and the PHCC Educational Foundation have partnered with [Air Conditioning Contractors of America] and [Refrigeration Service Engineers Society] to develop the foremost HVACR apprentice manual series available," she said. "Also designed to be challenging for the postsecondary student, the new HVACR manuals are a welcome addition to PHCC and the PHCC Educational Foundation's series of educational offerings."
Additionally, Hall said, program quality is influenced by the quality of the classroom instruction.
To that end, PHCC, the PHCC Educational Foundation, ACCA, Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Institute and RSES will offer a joint instructor workshop for instructors, program administrators, advisory committee members and others involved in administering their apprenticeship programs. The workshop is scheduled for April 2006 at the National Conference Center in Lansdowne, Va.