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Because I am writing this blog about unions, I should start out with full disclosure: I do not belong to a union and never have, but my father and grandfather were both union organizers—when they were not managers. Therefore, I have a prejudice in favor of unions. However, my favorable opinion is borne out by the research I have reviewed on apprenticeship programs sponsored jointly by unions and employers versus those sponsored solely by employers. I came upon the relevant research reports while working on a book about apprenticeable occupations, 200 Best Jobs Through Apprenticeships, Second Edition (JIST Works).

A report from the United States Government Accountability Office (pdf here) covering apprenticeships in the year 2004 found that the completion rate for construction apprentices in joint union-employer programs was 17% higher (47% versus 30%) than the rate for employer-only programs. The greater success of the joint programs has been explained by various factors. The joint programs are more established, better funded, and more likely to provide mentoring and job placement services. One factor in successful job placement by unions is the network of affiliates that unions have, so that their apprentices who are in a locality where work is slow can more often find work in other localities. Agreements between union chapters aid such transfers. It is also likely that union-affiliated programs have better mentoring and other social supports.

A study in Michigan (apparently no longer on the Web) found similar results for joint programs in the building trades over the years from 1995 to 2003: a 46% completion rate, versus 26% in employer-only programs. So did a study of the same industry in Maryland, from 1990 to 2003 (pdf here), where the completion rates were 44% versus 28%.

But the research shows other benefits besides completion rate. The GAO report found that union apprentices were paid 24% higher than nonunion apprentices. This difference reflects the fact that apprentices are paid some fraction of a journey worker’s earnings, and union journey workers are paid 36% higher.

The Michigan study found that the joint programs were particularly beneficial to women, minorities, and veterans. In the programs studied, 90% of the minority apprentices were in the joint programs, as were 94% of the women and 91% of the veterans. Forty percent of the female apprentices completed the joint programs, whereas only 14% completed the employer-only programs. In the Maryland study, 30% of the apprentices in the joint programs were African American, compared to 16% in the employer-only programs. Proportions of Latino and female participants were only slightly higher in the Maryland joint programs, but completion rates for these workers (as well as the African Americans) were significantly higher. In both the Michigan and Maryland studies, the joint programs covered a larger variety of trades.

The BLS reports that union membership now covers about 12% of all workers and has declined considerably since 1983, the first year for which there is comparable union data, when membership was at about 20%. Are unions the answers to all of America’s economic problems? Of course not. But one major problem we’re facing is where the skilled workers of tomorrow will come from, after the Baby Boomers retire. The report on the Michigan study noted that "union construction has one apprentice for every 39 blue-collar employees, [whereas] non-union construction has one apprentice for every 527 blue-collar employees." Unions are investing in training tomorrow’s workforce.