Study: Iowa Construction Apprenticeships Rival Colleges on Key Metrics

Union-affiliated programs exceed nonunion alternatives on wages, diversity, and graduation rates

La Grange, IL: Joint labor-management (union) apprenticeship programs in Iowa’s construction industry are delivering outcomes that rival many colleges in the state, according to a new study by the nonpartisan Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI). The performance of joint construction programs also far exceeds that of the state’s nonunion construction apprenticeship system, the study finds.
Read the report, “Apprenticeship Training in Iowa: Enrollment, Completion Rates, and Earnings”
The study analyzed and compared 2010-2017 data from the U.S. Department of Labor and Iowa Student Aid Commission to assess outcomes associated with the state’s construction training programs, which represent nearly half of all registered apprentices in the state. 
“From the standpoint of graduate earnings, the data shows that the unionized construction industry’s registered apprenticeship programs rival many traditional college programs, and far surpass programs administered solely by employers,” said study co-author and MEPI Researcher Jill Gigstad. “And this is without taking into account the fact that registered construction apprenticeships offer their participants the chance to get paid while learning in-demand skills for a career in the construction trades.”
Construction apprenticeship programs are organized in one of two ways. Joint labor-management programs are cooperatively administered and have standards, wages, and a cents-per-hour financing system that is collectively bargained by contractors and unions. In employer-only programs, single employers or trade associations unilaterally administer programs, establish standards, and rely on a financing system of voluntary contributions.  
While joint (union) apprenticeship programs produce 55% of the Iowa’s skilled trade apprentices, they produce a disproportionate share of the state’s apprentices who are women (70%), Black (68%), Latinx (63%), and military veterans (61%). Though the share of joint program apprentices who were Black or Latinx lagged relative to the state’s colleges and universities in 2017 (9.9% vs. 12.2%), it substantially outperformed the employer-only segment of the industry’s apprenticeship system on this diversity metric (9.9% vs 6.7%).  

Similarly, while researchers found that average wages and the rate of wage growth for workers who had completed registered apprenticeships in construction were equal to or exceeded many workers with college degrees, they noted that graduates of employer-only programs earned an average of 34% less, with an exit pay level and wage growth rate that lagged workers with only high school diplomas. 

“The data shows that broad stigmas often associated with vocational training and sweeping generalizations that suggest all apprenticeship pathways yield similar economic results are simply not grounded in fact,” said study co-author and MEPI Policy Director Frank Manzo IV. “The construction industry’s joint labor-management apprenticeship model offers a best-in-class pathway to the middle class free of burdensome student loan debt.”    

The study also examined additional metrics, including the rigor of training curricula and graduation rates.  In doing so, it again found that joint construction program participants were more than twice as likely to graduate than employer-only apprentices. Both types of construction programs required more than 7,500 hours of training—30% more than bachelor’s degree programs at public universities in Iowa and 160% more than associate degrees at Iowa’s community colleges.

With historic levels of infrastructure investment under consideration in Congress and the finding that Iowa’s construction apprenticeship system offers young people a viable alternative to college, researchers argue that policy interventions may be needed to expand access to the programs. Specifically, they encouraged lawmakers to consider expanding pre-apprenticeship programs at public high schools and community colleges, promoting female participation by improving access to child care, linking apprenticeship training with growing sectors of construction such as clean energy projects, and enacting a state prevailing wage law—which would promote funding of construction apprenticeship programs by union and non-union contractors alike.
“The joint labor-management apprenticeship system offers access to family-sustaining careers that can rival peers with college degrees, and highlights the significant differences in programmatic quality within the construction industry,” Manzo concluded. “These distinctions can and should help inform future actions by policymakers and industry leaders working to develop a stable supply of skilled trade workers.”

The Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization which uses advanced statistics and the latest forecasting models to promote thoughtful economic growth for businesses and working families across the Midwest.

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