Union Apprenticeship Earnings Rival College Degrees

Union Apprenticeship Earnings Rival College Degrees

Oh, how the tables have turned. There used to be a time when the earnings potential of college degrees was typically viewed as being much better than union apprenticeship earnings. There was a pervasive stigma that careers in the trades were less favorable over college and produced a smaller return. But today, the lines are far less clear. Economically speaking, college and union apprenticeships have grown into quite an even match for one another, going toe-to-toe in many areas.

National data from a new study shows just how close the race has become between the two, leveling the debate over which is better between college or construction. It also, interestingly, shows us where the real gap lies – which is the bottomless pit of lost economic opportunity that exists between union and nonunion construction.


Wages and Benefits on Par

In looking at how things have changed over the last decade or so, researchers are saying that “on average, graduates of joint labor-management (union) apprenticeship programs in the construction industry are able to achieve near wage and benefits parity with other types of workers with four-year college degrees.”

That’s according to a new study titled “Union Apprenticeships: The Bachelor’s Degree of the Construction Industry.” In the study, researchers from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) analyzed 10 years of data from the Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement released by the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Census Bureau.

Based on an examination of core economic, fiscal, and social metrics, the study found that graduates of union apprenticeship programs experience outcomes that are similar to bachelor’s degrees and associate degrees.

“The data reveals that broad stigmas that have long been associated with vocational training alternatives to college are simply not grounded in fact,” said study ILEPI Policy Director Frank Manzo IV.

“Compared with two- and four-year colleges, joint labor-management apprenticeships in construction deliver a more robust training regimen, similar diversity outcomes, competitive wage and benefit levels, and comparable tax revenue for states and local governments, while leaving graduates entirely free of burdensome student loan debt,” Manzo said.

Local union officials agreed. Ron Ware, business manager with Portage-based Ironworkers Local #395, said, “In our industry, young people are starting out their working lives very strong. Debt free with a promising future, all while picking up transferable skills they will have for the rest of their careers. Most jointly administered apprenticeships also have a two-year associate degree that is earned along with completing the apprenticeship, which can also lead to future career opportunities.”

“The trades are no longer a backup option like people thought in the past,” Ware said. “They are now a premier option.”


The Real Disparity: Union vs. Nonunion

One of the other interesting things about the report was that it painted a very clear picture of the massive economic disparity that exists between careers in union vs nonunion construction. To be blunt, union jobs simply blow away nonunion jobs in terms of what they offer to workers. It’s really not even close.

According to the study, nonunion workers lose out across all the metrics. The researchers wrote that “nonunion construction workers earned an average $18,300 less per year than their unionized counterparts, were significantly less likely to have access to health insurance or a retirement plan at work, were more than twice as likely to be living in poverty, were nearly three times more likely to be reliant on Medicaid, and were significantly less likely to be married—a metric that other research has linked to social stability and upward economic mobility.” In other words, union wins in just about every career area that counts.

“The data unequivocally shows that attending college is not the only pathway into the American middle class,” said Manzo. “However, it is clear that the most viable such pathway in construction runs through the joint labor-management apprenticeships and the unionized side of the industry.”


Great Jobs with Great Futures

It’s time to dispel the old stigma that college is a better career choice than union apprenticeships. That bygone belief is simply untrue for many reasons. The reality is that both of them can lead to very similar economic outcomes and fantastic jobs. Each can lead to great results.

Nonunion construction jobs are probably the real culprit here that should bear the brunt of the career debate scrutiny. Nonunion returns fall drastically short of those found among union careers or college degree pathways, and they clearly represent the least-preferred alternative.

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