Graduating college is not the only pathway to economic security and upward mobility for American workers. Through registered apprenticeship programs, the construction industry enables building and construction trades workers to achieve comfortable lifestyles for themselves and their families.

Now a new study bears out what many in the construction trades already knew firsthand. A new, national study by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) found 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.

The study analyzed ten 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 and comes as Congress is considering more than $1 trillion in new infrastructure investment that is expected to increase demand for skilled trades workers.

Read the report, “Union Apprenticeships: The Bachelor’s Degree of the Construction Industry – Data from the United States 2010-2020.”

“This study shows that for those that enroll in registered union apprentices, their financial outcomes and the benefits they receive rival those of college graduates” said Mary Stuart, Associate Director for the Construction Careers Foundation. “Minnesota has more than 30 available union apprenticeship programs across the trades that we want students, educators and parents to know about when a student is evaluating the next step after college graduation.”

According to the ILEPI study, joint labor-management apprenticeship programs are the bachelor’s degrees of the construction industry, delivering training hours, diversity outcomes, competitive earnings, and positive social and fiscal effects that rival universities and community colleges.

“Junior and senior high school students are talking with their families about student loans and debt,” Stuart said. “A career in construction through union apprenticeship allows students to get paid to learn a set of career skills without incurring about $39,000 in debt, which is the average loan burden for student borrowers across the United States.”

For young workers, the unionized building trades’ registered apprenticeship programs offer excellent alternatives to achieving financial stability and upward economic mobility.

Public Conscious Chips Away at Stigmas surrounding Construction

“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.”

In its examination of core economic, fiscal, and social metrics, the study found that graduates of union apprenticeship programs achieve outcomes most like other workers with bachelor’s degrees and associate degrees. Outcomes for nonunion construction workers more closely mirrored other workers with high school diplomas or GEDs.

“Trades professionals will tell you that being part of a union is much like a social club – a brother or sisterhood,” Stuart said. “But they will likely also mention how the union bargains to take care of them — paying union dues means that collective bargaining strategies increase or optimize wages or benefits run in your favor as an employee.”

Increasing Diversity in the Trades

Relative to public universities, this research also found that union apprenticeship programs enrolled a higher share of Black or African American trainees in three of the five states studied, and a higher share of Hispanic or Latinx trainees in four of the five states studied.

“By providing more people from more backgrounds with the in-demand skills needed to secure good-paying jobs, the data shows that joint labor-management apprenticeship programs consistently deliver bachelor’s degree-level outcomes,” Manzo concluded. “That’s great news for workers looking for alternatives to college, and an instructive framework for policymakers looking for ways to grow America’s middle class.”