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Apprentices Make the World Go Round… Tomorrow

The bad news about the recovery is the unsettling thought that when boom times finally do return, contractors won’t have enough team members to benefit from it.

Mon April 21, 2014 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

The only good news about a national shortage of construction industry workers is that economic recovery for the industry is not yet here. The unsettling thought is that when boom times finally do return, contractors won’t have enough team members to benefit from it.

Associated General Contractors is concerned enough that it has rolled out "A Workforce Development Plan for the 21st Century." It proposes that Congress respond to the crisis in a variety of ways including immigration reform that encourages undocumented workers to keep working and lets more such workers cross the border.

Other proposals include enabling legislation for more construction-focused charter schools, new rules to lure veterans into training programs, and a law allowing open-shop contractors to jointly fund construction training programs as union-shop contractors already can.

More sensible federal funding of work programs also is proposed. According to AGC, the federal Office of Appenticeships (who knew?) received $28 million in 2013 to oversee 21,000 registered apprenticeship programs serving 358,000 apprentices. That may be too much or not enough funding, but it pales beside the nearly $1.6 billion spent on administering the Job Corps program for 60,000 youth.

What is interesting is how many of the proposals concern apprenticeships. The whole idea of being an apprentice—that is, learning a skill by doing the work under the eye of a professional—is not 21st-century cool. Job titles today suffer from inflation—WalMart probably started it by calling every worker an "associate." Anything that implies a new employee is in a learning phase suggests delayed gratification and doesn’t play to the notion that everyone in a workplace is equal.

Yet the fact is, apprentices are about the future of any industry. A skilled workforce tomorrow is wholly dependent on training today. I hope the call for greater support of construction apprenticeship programs resonates in Washington before the recovered industry finds itself in a sticky thicket.

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