Building the Construction Workforce with Pre-Apprenticeships

Programs launch construction careers by filling gaps in candidates’ skills.

Despite rising construction wages (they increased 3.8 percent over the last year), contractors continue to have trouble recruiting enough skilled workers to meet their workforce needs. Pre-apprenticeship programs could be one way of filling those vacancies. They’re designed to introduce people — usually from groups under-represented in today’s construction workforce — to the industry and to build their skills so they can meet the entry requirements for apprenticeship programs.

Pre-apprenticeship programs are offered in many different forms throughout the country. Some are sponsored by trade associations or craft unions, while others are connected with community colleges or high school vocational training. Local community organizations may participate by helping with candidate recruitment and/or providing some of the soft skills training that’s usually part of pre-apprenticeship programs.

Preparing and prescreening in Massachusetts

Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts started its pre-apprenticeship program this year. Greg Beeman, president and CEO, said the program promises dual benefits: It will help its members find solid apprenticeship candidates while offering minorities, women and members of other disadvantaged groups a chance to learn about the career opportunities in construction and gain entry into the industry.

One goal of pre-apprenticeship training is to give potential job candidates a realistic look at what it's like to work construction.

“Our members asked us to help them find people who are screened or who have some initial training so they have a basic understanding of the industry,” said Beeman. For example, workers will have to be prepared to be on the job early, show up every day, work in all kinds of weather and have reliable transportation to travel to different work sites.

ABC MA’s three-month, twice-a-week pre-apprenticeship course includes work ethics and leadership training as well as training that enables them to obtain both their OSHA 10-hour card and their hoisting certification by the end of the class. The 24 participants in the class, which is funded by a grant from the state of Massachusetts, will earn 75 credits towards their apprenticeship training. They’ll also get a chance to learn more about the different trades by meeting with various subcontracting companies.

By the time the course ends in August, ABC MA hopes to place all of the pre-apprenticeship graduates in apprenticeship positions at member companies.

Preparing workers for a construction boom in rural Pennsylvania

Beaver County, Pennsylvania, needs as many as 6,000 new construction laborers thanks to an ethane cracker plant that’s being built in this rural area. To fill that need, the Community College of Beaver County last year hired Maria Brown to coordinate an apprenticeship readiness program for several community colleges in the area.

The program follows the pre-apprenticeship curriculum developed by the North America Building Trades Union (NABTU) and is endorsed by local trade union organizations.

“The program includes 40 hours of basic math just to get the students up to speed,” said Brown. “Unions were finding that they had good, qualified candidates who just couldn’t pass the math test, especially folks who had been out of school for 10 years or more.” Participants receive training in blueprint reading and can earn their OSHA 10 and CPR certifications. They work on their soft skills, learning about interview techniques, diversity in the workplace and sexual harassment on the job.

Site visits to different apprenticeship training locations are important in helping participants get a feel for the types of construction work available, Brown added.

“The program includes 40 hours of basic math just to get the students up to speed. Unions were finding that they had good, qualified candidates who just couldn’t pass the math test, especially folks who had been out of school for 10 years or more.”

Maria Brown, Coordinator of the Apprenticeship Readiness Program at Community College of Beaver County

Last year the program, funded by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor (DOL), was open to everyone, and the class was diverse in terms of ages and skill levels. Of the 50 people who participated, 20 earned places in union apprenticeship programs and another 28 found employment in a construction related field.

Although the 2018 program’s cost — about $2,500 per person — is currently covered by another DOL grant, the department will fund training only for workers who have lost their jobs through company shutdowns, etc. With the unemployment rate so low, Brown admits it’s been challenging to recruit people to take part.

“Asking folks who are disadvantaged to take off three and a half weeks for training is a hard sell, particularly for older folks who have families they need to support,” she said. Despite the challenges, Brown hopes to have 80 people go through the pre-apprenticeship training in 2018.

Career guidance and tech education around the country

Here’s a sampling of other pre-apprenticeship programs around the country.

  • New York City: BuildingWorks, established in 1995, is sponsored by the New York City District Council of Carpenters. Its free classes provide career guidance, an introduction to apprenticeship, worker health and safety training and environmental training. The program has graduated over 1,000 individuals; 80 percent of them have gone on to carpentry apprenticeship training.
  • Kent, Washington: ANEW (Apprenticeship and Non-traditional Employment for Women) offers an 11-week, part-time pre-apprenticeship training program. The Trades Rotation Program gives both women and men an opportunity to check out a variety of different apprenticeship programs in the Seattle area. Program participants also receive technical and math-related lessons to prepare them for apprenticeship opportunities.
  • Detroit: SER (Service, Employment, Redevelopment) offers a free, eight-week, 200-hour apprenticeship readiness training program for unemployed or under-employed high school graduates. The program includes work readiness training as well as instruction in applied math and reading, blueprint reading, OSHA certification and CPR/First Aid/AED. The goal is to prepare graduates to enter an apprenticeship program or go directly into the construction workforce.

Apprenticeship programs, which provide paid on-the-job training, are a smart approach to narrowing the skilled worker gap, but not everyone is ready for one or knows what kind of construction trade they might want to apprentice in. Pre-apprenticeship programs open the door to people who may lack some of the basic skills or the knowledge to take that important step toward a construction career.


Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.

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