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ABC Responds To AFL-CIO Apprenticeship Report

Editor's note: In our December 2003 issue, we first reported on AFL-CIO's allegations against apprenticeship programs run by ABC (“AFL-CIO Department: Report Cites Failures In ABC Apprenticeship Training”). In our January 2004 issue, Jim Olsztynski wrote an Editorial Opinion on the matter (“Trash Talk Over Apprenticeship”). The following is a response by ABC President and CEO M. Kirk Pickeral.

The Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO issued a report on Oct. 28, 2003, attacking Associated Builders and Contractors apprenticeship programs. The report begins with a flawed methodology, incorporates some blatant errors and finishes with an extraordinarily ill-conceived policy recommendation.

The BCTD fears competition in the apprenticeship arena and seeks to retain an apprenticeship system that preserves the outdated union apprenticeship training model. The BCTD's concern is with actions taken by the U.S. Department of Labor to address the bias that many state apprenticeship councils, such as the California apprenticeship council, have had favoring union-only apprenticeship training.

Instead of responding in kind to these political attacks, ABC chose to take a measured and thoughtful approach to evaluating the data on apprenticeship programs to develop an informed assessment of apprenticeship programs, as well as respond to the BCTD attacks and address where the industry needs to be today in terms of training.

To make its claims about the success of its own programs, the BCTD report uses limited and sometimes flawed data to attack ABC and its apprenticeship programs. For example:

  • The BCTD report claims that there are no ABC chapters in Minnesota or Missouri. ABC of Minnesota, with 330 member firms, has been in existence since 1976 and offers craft training and apprenticeship training. In Missouri, ABC's Heart of America chapter serves Missouri and Kansas, and has its own apprenticeship training facility.

  • The report cites 38 ABC chapters in 20 states, when there are 72 chapters in 37 states that support apprenticeship training.

  • The BCTD report selectively omits ABC chapters with strong apprenticeship programs, such as those in Iowa, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and northern Ohio. In other parts of the country, such as Colorado and North Carolina, ABC chapters are part of a larger construction consortium that operates apprenticeship programs. ABC chapters in such states as Virginia and Tennessee train apprentices who are registered by their employer. None of these figures are included in the BCTD report.

  • The BCTD report asserts that cancellation rates demonstrate unsuccessful programs. None of the data presented demonstrates what proportion (i.e., rate) of apprentices graduate. Instead, the report uses raw data from various years that cannot show the percentage of any given class that graduates.

    Ironically, if data on cancellations and graduations are compared from union-only apprenticeship programs in the 30 states for which the Department of Labor has data, cancellations outnumber graduations 8 to 1 in fiscal year 2002.

    Building on this faulty analysis, the BCTD report presents a policy recommendation - establishing maximum cancellation rates - that would work against the industry's best interests by shutting the door to nontraditional candidates. The Department of Labor calls for extensive outreach to nontraditional candidates. Apprenticeship should be an open opportunity program with no prejudice toward potential qualified candidates, such as veterans, women and minorities. Tightening entry restrictions, in order to meet some predetermined outcome, can only hinder efforts to attract the nontraditional candidate.

  • While the BCTD report attacks women and minority participation in ABC apprenticeship programs, it conveniently fails to report on its own program statistics on minorities. According to DOL, in fiscal years 1997 to 2002, nonunion construction programs have graduated a greater rate of minorities than union programs in the 30 states it cites.

    For example, in fiscal year 2002, only 6.5 percent of graduates were minorities in union programs, while 9.4 percent of graduates were minorities in nonunion programs. For women, both union and nonunion programs are doing poorly, with only about 2 percent of any graduating class being women.

    Errors and miscalculations such as these further undermine the legitimacy of BCTD's claims and recommendations.

    However, the fact remains: The U.S. construction industry needs a well-trained workforce. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, in the last 10 years, the value of construction put-in-place has increased 75 percent. At the same time, there has been a 48 percent growth in the construction workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the industry will add another 1 million net jobs by 2012. This raises an important question for our industry. How do we recruit and train the workforce of tomorrow? How do we convince that workforce to build a career in our industry?

    No doubt, apprenticeship is one means of achieving this goal. But it is not the solution. In fact, of the nearly 9 million workers in our industry today, only about 4 percent are apprentices. Apprenticeship in its current form is in many ways an outdated way to train construction workers.

    Apprenticeship is regulated through a patchwork of federal and state laws, and registered apprentices are used primarily for public work, which accounts for only a small proportion of all the construction work done in the United States each year. Private construction projects use a more flexible system for training.

    With the demand for workers in our industry, knowledgeable, experienced craft professionals are often able to demand higher wages long before a registered apprenticeship program would be complete. In many states, craftspeople can obtain their journeyperson license before graduating from an apprenticeship program, and as such decide to leave the apprenticeship program.

    Today's construction industry and its employees demand more flexible training modules. This flexibility includes performance-based and task-oriented craft training, continuing classroom education, industry-specific training and license-driven training. Instead of focusing on one craft, employees today often cross-train to advance in the industry.

    In 1995, ABC led the creation of the National Center for Construction Education and Research, affiliated with the University of Florida's Rinker School of Building Construction. Today, the NCCER offers standardized curricula for more than 40 construction and construction-related crafts. ABC also partners with local secondary and vocational schools, and universities to offer the maximum resources for those receiving industry training.

    ABC remains committed to excellence in training, including both apprenticeship and other forms of craft-training programs. Apprenticeship is a valuable tool in training the workforce of the future, but it is not the only way. While we evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of existing apprenticeship programs, we as an industry must also evaluate the underlying premise of our entire apprenticeship system. ABC welcomes that discussion. We believe that it is time to reinvent apprenticeship programs overall to offer shorter terms for achievement, multiple levels of skilled craftspersons certification and flexible curriculum that meets the needs of construction workers and the dynamic, ever-changing industry of today.
    M. Kirk Pickerel
    President and CEO Associated Builders and Contractors
    Arlington, Va.


    As did John Siegenthaler, I, too, fielded too many calls from the north country this past winter from dissatisfied radiant customers, and like John, discovered too many improperly installed systems not unlike the ones described in his column (“Shakeout Time,” May 2004).

    We at Watts Radiant are strong advocates of aluminum conductor (not “reflector”) plates when applying our RadiantPEX under floors. When correctly applied, they are most often adequate. PEX and PEX-AL-PEX pipe was originally a European product, engineered for the way Europeans build (with concrete slabs). Because Americans build primarily with wood, these products must be adapted for proper use. Obviously, if you leave out the adapters (conductor plates), troubling issues are most certainly going to follow.

    EPDM (Onix) tubing, however, was engineered for the way we here in America build our homes and, when applied properly in an under-floor application, is very capable of delivering sufficient Btus for heating without adapters (conductor plates). Because EPDM has no linear expansion, it can be stapled directly to the subfloor, offering great conductive contact without plates and none of the concern about the noise associated with PEX expansion.

    John's article was good pointing to some of the misapplications and mistakes that are all too common, but the mistake of leaving out the capacity of EPDM was very disappointing to me and a disservice to a number of my very successful radiant contractor customers. At a show this past week in Vermont, these customers asked why this obviously “radiant savvy” writer seems to ignore this excellent product and application. I could not answer them.

    John also alluded to, but did not directly address, the importance of a proper insulation technique under a radiant panel. Among the problem radiant jobs I visit, far too many are improperly insulated. We at Watts Radiant propose insulating with a reflective top surface, which for all practical purposes eliminates thermal striping and adds an efficiency improvement to the insulation of approximately 25 percent. The foil, coupled with an insulation R-value four times the floor's R-value, makes for a panel that performs beautifully in thousands of homes from Maine to Michigan, which is where I radiantly roam.
    Rich McNally
    Watts Radiant
    Eastern regional sales manager
    Chesapeake, Va.

    John Siegenthaler responds: I've received quite a bit of correspondence about the “Shakeout Time” column. It seems that most reasonable people (and I'd like to include myself in that category) agree that plateless staple-up does have a niche in the radiant industry, provided that designers and installers carefully scrutinize where that niche exists and, perhaps more importantly, where it does not.

    The column specifically criticized the indiscriminant use of plateless staple-up, and the profusion of untested ways in which tubing is stapled to floor framing. Very few of those who contacted me about the column denied that this problem exists, and that it is anything but harmful for the radiant heating industry. Nearly all agreed that steps should to be taken to reduce and ultimately eliminate such installations.

    Toward that end, manufacturers could develop precise specifications on when they will back the use of their products in plateless staple-up applications. Those specifications could then be clearly communicated, in writing, down the supply chain to the installer. The whole team needs to be on the same page here.

    Another option would be developing an independent rating system for all type of radiant panel installations. The IBR ratings for fin-tube baseboard were established years ago as a way for that segment of the hydronics industry to police (and ultimately preserve) itself. The radiant panel industry has the same need, and time is of the essence. Another winter that will impartially judge the radiant systems that perform to expectations from those that don't is just a few months away.