SMACNA Supports Proposed Rules to Revise the National Apprenticeship System

DOL proposal will strengthen labor standards, quality, worker protections, promote various apprenticeship pathways and create a student-centric model of Registered Apprenticeship.

SMACNA, in its March 18 comments to the Department of Labor on proposed rules to revise the National Apprenticeship System, applauded DOL's efforts touting the benefits of "gold standard" industry-wide, multi-employer Registered Apprenticeship Programs (RAPs) because of their ability to effectively train large numbers of workers with the skills and education needed to deliver the highest quality construction. Through its investment in JATCs and training facilities, along with its local affiliates, SMACNA invests more than $57 million each year and supports over 14,000 apprentices entering the sheet metal industry. According to DOL's own data, union affiliated JATCs like those sponsored by SMACNA and SMART train over 85 percent of the sheet metal workers in the United States. 

Industry-wide RAPs provide workers with a middle-class career and good paying jobs with benefits. SMACNA has long sought to highlight the benefits of industry wide RAPs and National Apprenticeship standards. 

However, in recent decades, efforts by open shop contractors to cut corners on training have led to improvised single-employer apprenticeship programs that do not provide sufficient training and career opportunities. This has led to a skilled worker shortage on national construction projects.  

In its comments, SMACNA strongly supported DOL's efforts to modernize apprenticeship standards, specifically:

  • Strengthening of labor standards, quality, and worker protections by making occupational skills and training more portable, enhancing alignment with postsecondary education, and providing better performance data. 
  • Defining clearer roles for State Apprenticeship Agencies and other stakeholders within the National Apprenticeship System.
  • Codifying the Office of Apprenticeship's role for national leadership, promotion, and standards. 
  • Promoting apprenticeship pathways, including pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship readiness programs, by expanding performance and data requirements to improve accountability, transparency, and program outcomes. 
  • Creating a student-centric model of Registered Apprenticeship, called Registered Career and Technical Education Apprenticeship, designed to make it more seamless for full-time high school and community college students to enroll in a Registered Apprenticeship. This approach is modeled after high-quality youth apprenticeship systems in states across the country.

While the proposed changes would generally benefit JATC's in the sheet metal industry, SMACNA offered several improvements to the rules to enhance the rules governing apprenticeship.

Regarding the proposed rule that would prohibit "non-compete clauses" or limit an apprentice's ability to seek employment with another employer prior to completion of the apprenticeship program, SMACNA commented that multi-employer RAPs be exempt. SMACNA argued that the prohibition should apply to single-employer apprenticeship programs only since multi-employer RAPs offer employment for any signatory contractor in an area covered by the collective bargaining agreement. The existence of the collective bargaining agreement nullifies the concern of unequal bargaining power between employers and workers underlying the proposed rule. Apprentices in multi-employer RAPs are protected from termination without just cause, enjoy contributions to fringe benefit funds, have ratios that promote worker safety, and benefit from a myriad of worker protections that result from collective bargaining.

SMACNA further argued that Educational Loan Agreements are not "non-compete" provisions, which DOL proposed to prohibit. Unlike non-compete clauses, educational loan agreements provide that the educational loan is forgiven over time and costs apprentices nothing unless they leave the program and work for an employer that does not contribute to the cost of training. ELAs have been held to be legal by DOL since 1983.

Additionally, SMACNA proposed that the National Apprenticeship System require rolling admissions, in contrast to annual enrollment, in its standards of apprenticeship. Rolling admissions would ensure that apprenticeship programs can increase enrollment quickly in the event of an acute labor shortage due to a sharp increase in construction projects in the area.  

Furthermore, SMACNA commented that DOL should make clear that federal grants and student aid are available for apprentices under Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, and other Federal grant programs. Most federal grant programs provide educational assistance to college students; however, providing federal dollars to help apprentices attend RAPs sponsored by JATCs will increase the number of apprentices working in the industry, which will expand the economy.

SMACNA argued that the "CTE Apprenticeship program" outlined in the proposed rule was inconsistent with apprenticeship programs in the construction industry since classroom and on-the-job training hours were significantly reduced. SMACNA commented that if the program was not removed from the final rule, it should be renamed as "CTE Pathways" since it does not fit within the existing apprenticeship model in the skilled construction trades. Given that the number of classroom instruction hours is half of what is required for a RAP program and on-the-job training hours are even less (900 hours compared to RAP's 2,000-hour requirement), the term apprenticeship should not be used to describe technical training, which does not fully train workers to be Journeyworkers upon completion of training. 

SMACNA, along with SMART and ITI, have commented separately and jointly to advance the apprenticeship system that is an essential part of the unionized construction industry. Over 1,900 training centers in the United States and Canada are privately funded through contributions exceeding $1.3 billion per year among unions and contractors, including SMACNA and SMART. SMACNA's comments highlight the importance of RAPs in the industry.   

Finally, SMACNA applauds the comprehensive policy review and thoughtful draft proposal represented by DOL's long overdue collaborative effort to reform its registered apprenticeship program. Our association has long been an outspoken champion of enhanced and vigorously enforced National Apprenticeship standards, and for decades, our members have advocated for and invested in RAPs far above the industry standard. By including the suggested reforms offered in SMACNA's comments, DOL's final rule will help alleviate the shortage of highly skilled workers in the face of an increasing number of multi-year national construction projects and build a far more robust RAP network for the future.

Stan Kolbe, SMACNA's Executive Director, Government, and Political Affairs, stated that "Collectively, the changes would ensure that apprentices receive broad-based, quality training that would provide them with marketable skills for their entire careers and further the DOL's goals of 'rebuilding the middle class' and 'connecting a diverse workforce to family-sustaining jobs.'"  

Without the enhanced RAP reform standards, which SMACNA endorses, the sheet metal and air conditioning construction industry's ability to meet design complexities and owner demands for project excellence will continue to be compromised. DOL has reviewed the severe skilled labor shortage crisis across the nation as well as considered legitimate owner-developer workforce concerns and then proposed many highly valued and long overdue RAP reforms. SMACNA applauds this DOL effort, and the countless hours the department expended for a process ignored for decades until our association and our quality-driven allies raised the issue before White House Task Force hearings and subsequent discussions.