During National Apprenticeship Week, Nov. 11 to 17, businesses, communities and educators will be able to showcase their apprenticeship programs and connect with career seekers who want to get information about on-the-job work-and-learn opportunities. The government-sanctioned event is in its fifth year and it’s nothing new for labor unions, which have honed their programs for years.
“This past spring, I went to Folsom, in Atlantic County, which was one of three locations at which LIUNA NJ was accepting applications for an apprenticeship program that follows U.S. Department of Labor regulations,” said Rob Lewandowsky, communications director at the New Jersey Laborers Union. “The center officially opened at 9 a.m., but when I got there at 6 a.m. to help set up, about 300 people were already standing in line.”
LIUNA NJ, which represents construction, public-sector, and service workers, operates training centers in Folsom, Monroe and Aberdeen in addition to a series of satellite centers.
Another New Jersey union, the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 68, runs education and apprentice training programs where “nearly every subject is covered from basic building maintenance, basic and advanced refrigeration, indoor air quality, HVAC troubleshooting, and critical system technology,” the organization said. “Graduates from our program have completed 600 hours of classroom training and 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and have obtained a Black Seal Steam License, Blue Seal Refrigeration License, OSHA-10, and CFC Universal License. Since 1958, thousands of members have graduated the four-year apprentice training program and been certified with the U.S. Department of Labor.”
The Garden State also encourages apprenticeships, through the New Jersey Apprenticeship Network. The state’s Office of Apprenticeship “is the primary contact and technical resource for employers, educational institutions, trade associations, and current-future apprentices for all statewide NJAN initiatives,” according to the agency. Its objectives include aligning secondary, post-secondary, adult education and occupational training “to meet labor demands unique to New Jersey and develop career pathways that lead to economically sustainable wages,” and to establish pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs in occupations, sectors, or industries in New Jersey that “are not currently registered with the USDOL and are consistent with the strategic focus of the New Jersey Apprenticeship Network.”
These kinds of programs can help to fill a big skills gap, according to John J. Sarno, an attorney who’s president of the Employers Association of New Jersey. “The companies with the biggest shortages tend to have 100 to 500 employees,” he said. “Within that group, the industries that are most affected include health care, retail, manufacturing, and logistics warehousing.”
Players in the retail food space, for example, “face a widening skills gap,” he said. “Supermarkets no longer just need people to stock shelves. They also want people who have the ability to analyze data. You don’t necessarily need a college degree to do well in this and similar occupations, but you do need technical skills.”
On Nov. 14, the EANJ is holding a roundtable with the U.S. Department of Labor, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, some universities and about 30 employers “to talk about what’s working. Right now there are more job openings than qualified applicants,” Sarno added. “Companies are in a talent crunch and they’re looking for long-term survivability strategies.”
The challenge is compounded by the fact that “more people have simply given up looking for work,” noted Sarno. “New Jersey is third from the bottom in long-term unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
The state also suffers from a “36 percent underemployment rate,” he said. “Millennials have the highest rates of underemployment, and those who hold full-time jobs often struggle to pay their bills. About 25 percent of college graduates now earn no more than does the average high school graduate.”
In part, that’s because too many people are chasing college degrees that aren’t likely to lead to a job, according to Sarno. “As for the job market as a whole, only about two in 10 jobs require a college degree. About 68 percent of employees believe they are overqualified for their current job, meaning they have more education than what’s required for the role.”
Susan J. Schurman, a distinguished professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, said union apprenticeships are valuable, “as long as we’re clear on what kind of apprenticeship program unions advocate.”
A good one, she explained, will feature “a rigorous training program jointly sponsored by the union and an employer or, more commonly, a group of employers in the same industry. These are what the USDOL describes as ‘registered’ apprenticeships, where the training program for the apprenticeship has been vetted by experts in the industry or occupation to determine that the curriculum meets a defined set of standards,” and is, consequently, transferable.
“In this sense, the registered apprenticeship model was one of the first credentials that could be deemed portable and transferable,” she added. “A plumber who completed the apprenticeship in New Jersey could move to Oregon and get a job because the employers there could assume that he or she had the requisite skills. This is a model that would be very valuable today in many other occupations.”
A key strength of the union apprenticeship model is the “earn while you learn aspect,” Schurman noted. “Apprentices in these programs get pay — albeit low — and benefits until they complete the program and graduate to the standard wage.”
She went on to take a swipe at the Trump administration for a move — through the federal DOL — to promote an industry-driven system of apprenticeships that operate in parallel with the existing registered apprenticeship system. Such a model would sidestep “the rigor of the registered apprenticeship model, and this may well result in nothing more than an unpaid internship,” said Schurman. “There’s nothing wrong with internships but they lack the rigor and accountability of the registered apprenticeship system.”
Michael Merrill, director of the Labor Education Action Research Network at Rutgers, characterized apprentice programs as “the best job readiness and workforce development programs around.” He’d like to see more companies take on apprentices, in white collar as well as blue collar industries, but said that “the obstacle is that there are no tax incentives — like accelerated depreciation for businesses — to encourage them. It’s too bad, because a program that lets employees earn while they learn is better for the individual — since they don’t have to worry about paying for a learning experience with the possibility of no job at the end of it — and employers get a break by paying a lower wage for a period while building employee loyalty.”l