Boston Herald: Union apprenticeships the new 4-year degree

Hand smoothing concrete

By John Sweeney
With graduation season upon us — students’ thoughts naturally turn to the future and what it may hold. For many, the end of high school means going to college. For others, the choice may be to enter the military. But for some, a union apprenticeship is the new four-year degree.

After all, college isn’t for everyone. Years ago, I decided that it wasn’t the best choice for me.

Not that college wasn’t fun. It was just that I was putting too much time into having fun and too little time into studying. It just wasn’t the right fit.

Signing up for an apprenticeship was like a gift to me. It was that or going to work at my local supermarket. Looking back, I know I made the right choice.

A union apprenticeship was my ticket to landing a job that offered opportunity and paid a family-sustaining wage with excellent benefits. As an apprentice, I got trained while getting paid. And I didn’t have thousands of dollars in college loans to repay at the end of my education.

Some members of my union — Boston Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 534 — had already earned college degrees before they picked up the tools of our trade. That’s because getting trained in concrete and plaster was a better fit for them than the other opportunities out there. So they signed up as apprentices and found their ticket to the middle class. For so many of our brothers and sisters in the local—this was the right answer for them.

In fact, a new study from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute concluded that an apprenticeship might be as good a ticket to the middle class as a four-year degree. 

On average, graduates of joint labor-management, meaning union, apprenticeship programs do well. In the construction industry, they can achieve wage and benefits packages almost on a par with other workers with four-year college degrees. Some may be making significantly more money than college graduates—all without mountains of student loan debt. 

Beyond that, Local 534’s apprenticeship programs offer training in cutting-edge tools. We recently debuted our virtual reality training program, which helps apprentices prepare for challenging situations before they even come up on the job.

The virtual reality training gives apprentices a real sense of what it’s like to do such things as spray fire-retardant onto metal beams at a building under construction and simulates being out on a construction platform and doing the job. This type of training in the latest equipment keeps our members prepared to tackle any situation on the job.

Local 534 is also recruiting the workforce of the 21st century. We’re actively recruiting women and minorities to our apprenticeship programs. Unlike other industries, you won’t find a gender pay gap out on the job. Under the union contract, that just won’t happen.

So it’s too simplistic to tell high schoolers that the only path to a solid and satisfying career is to go to college. College isn’t for everyone. Instead, high school guidance counselors should be educating students on all the options available to them once they graduate.

There are many great reasons for high school students to check out the opportunities offered by union apprenticeship programs. For many high school graduates, a union apprenticeship program is the new four-year degree.