Construction Apprenticeship and Training in Pennsylvania

David Bradley
Stephen Herzenberg
Publication Date: 
January 1, 2002


In recent years, the U.S. construction industry has faced a shortage of skilled craft workers. This shortage could grow more severe in the years ahead due to an aging construction workforce, leading to high rates of retirement. Since the late 1980s, the share of Pennsylvania construction industry workers aged 40 and over has risen from just under a third to nearly half.

In light of potential shortages, this report evaluates the role of apprenticeship training in meeting Pennsylvania’s need for skilled construction workers, relying primarily on official U.S. Department of Labor data.  The report highlights the distinction between union and non-union apprenticeship programs.  The former are governed by joint committees of labor and management, the latter unilaterally by individual employers or employer associations.


  • Union programs account for over four out every five active construction apprentices in Pennsylvania.  In 2002, union programs had 10,163 active apprentices (85 percent of the total), compared to 1,731 in non-union programs (15 percent of the total).
  • Higher shares of minority and female apprentices participate in union than non-union programs.  In 2001, union apprenticeship programs in Pennsylvania registered 319 additional male minorities and 76 female apprentices.  Non-union programs registered 33 male minorities and five women.
  • Graduation rates are higher in union apprenticeship programs than in non-union programs.

The most recent data on this issue show that 65 percent of union apprentices in Pennsylvania had completed their programs five or six years after enrolling.  By contrast, only 50 percent of non-union apprentices had completed their programs.

  • For minorities and women, dropout rates are especially high in non-union programs.  In Pennsylvania, five to six years after enrolling, the dropout rate for non-union minority apprentices is nearly three out of five, compared to two out of five for union programs.
  • In the late 1990s, facing potentially worsening skill shortages, union programs expanded to meet employers’ workforce needs.  From 1997 to 2001 in Pennsylvania, the number of construction apprentices completing union apprenticeship programs jumped 607, while the number completing non-union programs increased by only 39.

Despite higher enrollment, the number of individuals completing Pennsylvania construction trade apprenticeships each year remains low (1,674 in 2001) compared to the annual number of job openings projected in construction occupations (5,550 per year until 2008).  This underscores the importance of maintaining and possibly expanding enrollment in construction apprenticeship programs, especially if economic growth and construction demand rebound strongly.  Since union apprenticeship programs have outperformed nonunion ones on every measure of program success, further bolstering union apprenticeship programs appears the most promising route to meeting future construction industry skill needs.  This report highlights three ways to bolster union apprenticeships.


1. To make construction careers more attractive to young people and more acceptable to their parents, apprenticeship should be made easier to combine with a college degree.  This would build on a recent trend which shows that more unionized construction workers are already combining apprenticeship and post-secondary education.

  • The share of unionized Pennsylvania construction workers with some post-high school education has risen from 16 percent in the mid-1980s (1983-85) to 28 percent in the late 1990s (1999-2001). This compares with an increase from 12 to 15 percent among non-union construction workers.
  • Construction unions have facilitated access to higher education for their members by negotiating agreements that provide some college credit for the classroom component of apprenticeship.  In addition, many joint apprenticeship training funds pay for workers to continue on after apprenticeship to acquire a college degree.

While the college route once siphoned off a traditional source of young construction workers – the offspring of prior generations of trades workers – access to free or heavily subsidized college education could, in the future, help replenish the supply of new apprentices.

2. Improve the marketing of union apprenticeship programs.

At present, many high-school graduates go straight to a four-year college without ever considering unionized construction.  More students, parents, and guidance counselors might consider unionized construction if they understood two changing dimensions: its increasingly high-tech character and the opportunities that exist to combine apprenticeship with college, opening up careers in management and engineering.  Access a free or low-cost college education should be especially effective at attracting highly qualified students from low-income and working families, including minorities.

3.   Invest in best-practice pre-apprenticeship and mentoring programs.

In some cases, interested individuals cannot meet union apprenticeship entry standards and/or drop out of apprenticeship without graduating.  High-quality pre-apprenticeship training and post-entrymentoring could increase the number of individuals who can enter and succeed in construction.  In particular, with union apprenticeships increasingly enrolling minorities and women, an opportunity exists to refine and spread best practice mentoring and pre-apprenticeship training that serve these groups.  As a first step to capitalizing on this opportunity, the next Governor should commission an assessment of Pennsylvania and national preapprenticeship and mentoring programs. Based on the assessment, recommendations should be made on how to strengthen such programs, including by linking high-school school-to-career programs with unionized apprenticeships.

Investing in non-union construction training would not be a wise investment of public funds.  Non-union employers themselves underinvest in training and offer workers relatively low wages and benefits at the end of training.  Non-union programs also waste more training dollars because of low completion rates, and enroll especially low numbers of minorities and women.