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NEW STUDY: Wisconsin Construction Apprentices Achieve Wage Parity with College-Educated Workers

Parul Dubey on October 8, 2021 - in News, People

Study: Union Construction Apprenticeships in Wisconsin Rival Bachelor’s Degrees on Key Economic and Diversity Metrics

La Grange, IL: Graduates of registered apprenticeship programs in Wisconsin’s construction industry achieve near wage parity with workers that have four-year college degrees, according to a new study by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI) and the Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 
Read the report,  Apprenticeship as a Career Development Alternative: Enrollment, Hours, and Earnings in Registered Apprenticeship Programs in Wisconsin.
The study analyzed and compared data from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, University of Wisconsin System, U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau and Internal Revenue Service to assess outcomes associated with the state’s construction training programs, which represent nearly two-thirds of all apprentices in the state. Researchers not only compared construction apprenticeship programs to colleges and universities, but also assessed key differences between union-affiliated and nonunion-affiliated apprenticeship programs in construction.
“From the standpoint of the earnings and diversity of graduates, the data shows that the Wisconsin’s construction apprenticeship programs are essentially on par with the state’s public universities,” said study co-author, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor, and PMCR Director Dr. Robert Bruno. “And it is clear that the investments of joint (union) programs are what is driving this parity.”
Construction apprenticeship programs are financed in one of two ways. In joint labor-management programs, unions collectively bargain cents-per-hour contributions from contractors. In employer-only programs, single employers or trade associations make contributions voluntarily—and may choose to forgo these investments in an effort to win project bids.

The study details how joint apprenticeship programs comprise 95% of all investment in the state’s construction workforce, produce 81% of its skilled trade apprentices, and enroll an even higher share of apprentices who are women (85%), Black or African American (89%), Hispanic or Latinx (86%) and military veterans (85%). It found that the share of apprentices in joint construction programs who were Black or Latinx in 2018 (9.1%) was equal to their share of enrollment in the University of Wisconsin system (9.1%). Notably, this diversity metric was 40% lower (5.5%) in employer-only nonunion programs.  

Similarly, while researchers found that average wages of workers who had completed registered apprenticeships in construction were virtually  equal to other workers with bachelor’s degrees, they noted that graduates of joint (union) programs earn an average of $34 per hour—more than 42% higher than the $24 per hour average for those graduating from the nonunion alternative. 

“The data shows that broad stigmas often associated with vocational training and sweeping generalizations that suggest all construction training pathways yield similar economic outcomes 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 into the middle class, while leaving its participants free of burdensome student loan debt.”    

The study also highlights how registered construction apprenticeship programs provide a more robust training curriculum than Wisconsin’s two-year and four-year public college systems. On average, construction apprentices complete more than 7,200 hours of training—41% more than a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin System and 183% more than an associate degree from Wisconsin’s technical colleges.
In light of historic levels of infrastructure investment under consideration in Congress and the finding that Wisconsin’s construction apprenticeship system offers young people an especially viable alternative to college, researchers noted 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 restoring the state’s prevailing wage law—which promotes funding of construction apprenticeship programs by union and non-union contractors alike.  
“The construction industry’s registered apprenticeship system helps people earn while they learn in-demand skills, and offers access to family-sustaining careers that can rival peers with bachelor’s degrees,” Bruno concluded. “However, the data suggests that more can and should be done to expand these pathways, particularly among historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups in Wisconsin.

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