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A Union’s Secret Weapon: Apprentice Power

A Cornell report reveals that next-gen workers give New York unions an edge on quality and cost — and on the future.


The Cornell University report illustrates that unions have funded the development of their next generation professionals through annual apprenticeship programs. The regular influx of talent brings fresh energy to work crews and lower costs for builders.

In the on-going battle to win large-scale construction projects in New York City, non-union contractors have won more bids than union contractors. In fact, judging by the share of the construction workforce here, non-union has won a lot more: they represent nearly 70% of construction labor while unions make up about 30%, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


How has non-union stolen this edge? The standard explanation from people in the industry is that non-union contractors are cheaper than union contractors. 


Well, it’s time those industry people wake up to some facts, because here is yet another scholarly report on union vs. non-union project costs — this one from Cornell University’s ILR Worker Institute — that concludes unions are cheaper than non-union on a Prevailing Wage project, which is now law in New York on any project over $5 million which takes 30% of that from public funds.


In the last 12 months 2 deeply researched scholarly reports have determined union labor to be less costly than non-union labor. 

Cornell’s findings come on the heels of another industry report, this one by the Independent Project Analysis, which also found, after studying more than 20 years of construction project data, that union labor is reliably more cost-effective than non-union labor.


And one of the main factors enabling huge cost savings from unions, Cornell cites, is what many people believe is a union secret weapon: apprentices.


Unions sponsor apprenticeship programs that train the next generation of top-shelf construction talent. Every graduating concrete apprentice walking out of a LiUNA training center, for example, leaves with 4,000 hours of rigorous on-the-job experience and over 300 hours of classroom instruction. 


Meanwhile, the report says, “funding for [non-union training] relies on voluntary contributions from contractors, who often have an incentive to forgo long-term workforce training investments in order to win project bids.”


In short, non-union doesn’t have apprentices, unions do. And apprentice labor costs a fraction of what seasoned journeymen do. So when unions can add up to 40% of their labor as apprentices, they can provide significant savings to a builder.

Cornell_Report_2_Pay Chart.png

The two charts above illustrate the expected prevailing wage costs for each of four construction trades, and how manuy of those hours and costs can be mitigated by the use of supervised apprenticeship labor. 

“Our apprentices undergo very intense on-the-job training that usually takes years to complete,” said Paul Primiano, Training Director at the LiUNA center in Astoria. “They work under the watchful eye of seasoned men and women who have been through this very program before them. And their training continues throughout their careers.”


“Apprentices bring fresh blood and fresh energy to the job sites,” Mr. Primiano added. “A journeyman union crew that includes apprentices will provide the best quality and productivity for the dollar that a builder is going to get in New York.”


Cornell analysts agree. When building high-rises in New York, the best choice is union labor. Apprentices are a big reason that is true today and will be true still in the future.


In a recent post discussing the Cornell report, we focused on the unreported effects of giving non-union workers the prevailing wage. The prevailing wage includes paying non-union workers an amount that will allow them go and acquire the same fringe benefits that union members enjoy (when the non-union workers don’t use that money to buy health benefits—and almost none do—the IRS sees the pay as income). The result is a much higher payroll. When that higher payroll is added to non-union’s worse safety record, the workers’ compensation insurance for non-union crews is often astronomical.


Coming up in part three of our analysis of the Cornell University report, we’ll look at how non-union contractors can be winning bids when it’s been made clear they cost more money in the end and their work is not as reliable as unions. Here’s a teaser: their bids are not honest.

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