2021 | Dan Jacoby and Emily Gilroy 

Labor’s challenge in this new century is to adapt to, if not contain, the destabilizing influences of a marketplace racked by globalization and organizational reshuffling facilitated by new technologies.  From downsizing to gig work, business in America increasingly seeks a flexibility that undermines labor employment standards and job security.  Jacob Hacker called these changes the “great risk shift.” That shift reflects industry’s success in countering the industrial union movement that had transformed industrial relations up to the 1970s.  Now, however, U.S. labor appears to require new more effective strategies. This research is intended to inform those interested in advancing labor’s cause on the extent to which workforce development, and especially apprenticeship training, can or should be a more central element within the call for social and racial justice.


Long-term investments in apprenticeship cuts across the grain of a labor market fissured by contingent and precarious employment.  Yet, because younger Americans commonly believe their best recourse to dead-end work is to pursue heavy debt-financed college education, the researchers ask, “What should be labor's role in facilitating a skilled, productive and well remunerated workforce?”  American economists argue market failure limits human capital investment (Becker 1975; Elbaum 1991; Mokyr 2017).

However, market failures can be and are overcome through collective action, precisely the comparative advantage of organized labor.  Becker shows that long term contracts can secure employer investments in workers’ “human capital.” Union contracts in the building trades have been critical in forging industry cooperation in training apprenticeships (Jacoby, 1992).  Industry-wide agreements reduce pressures for firms act exclusively on short run competition-driven interests. Unions may also reduce the quality assurance concerns which bedevil training markets.  For all that, however, we acknowledge that a heavy lift will be required to gain wider acceptance of labor as a trusted training intermediary. Nonetheless, there are signs that apprentice work is gaining adherents in both the union and non-union sectors.

The Research Project

This project explores how and whether the limitations of collective action are being overcome within Washington’s training market.  The researchers simultaneously consider the role of labor and industry associations through intensive interviews with numerous individuals deeply involved in the apprenticeship work in this state.  Washington is one of 27 states that have defined their own apprenticeship standards to be administered by the Washington State Apprenticeship Council (WSAC).  WSAC convenes regularly to hear program reports, review applications for new programs, to monitor compliance and adjudicate apprentice or program infractions.  State standards set minimum hours of training and work experience, perhaps the most important of which involves minimum wage schedules that start at 60% of journey wages and rise continuously throughout the term of an apprentice.  

Tentative findings:

The final report from this research project is forthcoming, but the researchers have tentative findings to share. Although, the Trump administration challenged current apprenticeship practices by encouraging Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAP), which have less rigorous standards than the WSAC requires, state apprenticeship programs have grown substantially since the 2008 Great Recession. These programs offer a range of benefits to various stakeholders.

  • Develop Skills Across the Supply Chain - Training consortiums are required to train all workers without discrimination against non-unionized workers. For example, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) 751 spearheaded the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) despite majority involvement by non-union firms.  Developing skills across the Boeing supply chain is understood to be in the union and the employers’ interest, even when workers are not union members. 
  • Better Trained Workers and Decreased Turnover - Employers that work with unions on apprenticeship programs recognize the value of their participation. Employers experience positive rates of return on investment and decreased turnover. Union apprenticeships are generally perceived by employers to offer higher quality training than non-union or industry-based training.
  • Complement Organizing Efforts - Union officers believe that apprenticeship and trainings complement their efforts to organize workers.  For instance, SEIU 1199 NW heads a dynamic healthcare worker trust fund that supports short apprenticeships in new areas and provides long-term financing to advance member careers. 
  • Enhance Diversity - Pre-apprenticeship programs are central in efforts to diversify apprentice candidates and the overall industry recruitment pipeline. Moreover, the program’s post-apprenticeship mentoring and preceptorships extend career ladders for participants, therefore facilitating a durable diversifying effect.
  • Small Employers Overcome Fear to Improve Productivity – Although some small employers may resist multiemployer apprenticeships in fear of union involvement, they can see an apprenticeship program as a vehicle to recruit workers and to improve productivity. These small employers may yet be willing to bind themselves to apprenticeship standards without union involvement, albeit their journey and apprentice wages are typically lower than major employers in the area.

Through these tentative findings, it is clear that apprenticeship programs provide unions and employers multiple opportunities to diversify the recruitment pipeline, empower workers to advance their careers long-term, and encourage overall productivity.