Apprenticeships Instrumental in Closing the Gap

By Lee Worley, Ironworkers Director of Apprenticeship and Training

$400,000 swing between college and the real world!

A recent nationwide survey of 1,459 contractors conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America revealed that 69% are having difficulty finding skilled craft workers. Despite the fact that the number is 10% lower than last year, 75% of construction firms expressed concern that it will be difficult to find hourly craft workers over the next year.
With a young generation not considering construction as a viable career option, a wave of Baby-Boomer retirements and workers who switched careers during the recession, the growing project demand is dipping into a shallow pool of skilled labor. It has resulted in higher prices and longer construction schedules. Inability to find skilled labor hurts the bottom line when companies can’t meet the growing project demand. The ongoing labor shortage can have a ripple effect on the US economy.

However, the future doesn’t have to be as gloomy as it seems now. Apprenticeship programs present an effective solution to the skilled labor shortage. Tapping into the existing high-caliber apprentice labor force is the best option for closing the gap. Highly trained and skilled apprentices with on-the-job training graduate from accredited apprenticeship programs every day. IW
At the Iron Workers, we recognize that apprentices play an essential role in the growth and development of a safe and highly trained workforce. Earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship programs help iron workers make a fair wage with benefits, while training to be a journeyman in the field. The IW training centers collectively spend between $80 and $90 million a year in training a skilled construction workforce and average nearly 50,000 applications every year for the apprenticeship program. We are one of 15 organizations with similar business models, numbers and networks of brick-and-mortar facilities peppered across North America.

Key reasons for the skilled labor shortage is lack of awareness and lack of a plan to build the pipeline of workers. Regrettably, non-traditional career paths are often not presented to young people graduating high school as a viable and lucrative alternative to college. Thus, they are not often well-informed about nontraditional career alternatives. It is time to stop telling our young people that their only path to success is a four-year college degree. We simply need to do better at promoting technical training at middle and high school levels and providing them with more non-traditional choices that lead to well-paying and highly successful careers.

The Department of Labor recognizes that the apprenticeship programs are instrumental in closing the gap and has made them a key component of its workforce development initiatives. According to the DOL, apprenticeships are a proven path to secure careers:

“87% of apprentices are employed after completing their programs with an average starting wage above $50,000. The return on investment for employers is impressive. Studies from around the globe suggest that for every dollar spent on apprenticeship, employers get an average of $1.47 back in increased productivity, reduced waste and greater front-line innovation.”

If you make $50,000 per year versus spending that or more on college, it’s about a $400,000 swing. The Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez, relies on the Advisory Committee on Apprenticeship (ACA) for advice on workforce development and apprenticeship matters. I’m honored to serve on the ACA to help bring career-based solutions to address the skilled labor shortage. The experience and success of time-tested, earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship models, such as the IW apprenticeship program, serve as a valuable resource for the Department’s initiatives.
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