On Monday, the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association (SMACNA) and Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) submitted comments to the Department of Labor on their efforts to modernize National Registered Apprenticeship standards with a new proposed rule. 

Many of the 3,500 SMACNA member-construction firms are of significant size and provide a wide scope of expert construction services on major projects; yet most operate family-owned businesses with smaller, highly skilled workforces. SMACNA says this helps explain why these firms, which provide expertise and personnel far above the industry standard, rely on Department of Labor (DOL) government-registered apprenticeship programs (GRAPs) to provide them with quality trained and certified highly skilled workers.

SMACNA favors the reforms, suggesting further changes for the final rule like: defining clearer roles for state apprenticeship agencies and other stakeholders within the National Apprenticeship System; strengthening labor standards and providing better performance data; creating a Registered Career and Technical Education Apprenticeship designed to make it more seamless for full-time high school and community college students to enroll in a registered apprenticeship; and codifying the Office of Apprenticeship’s role for national leadership, promotion and standards.

“Collectively, the changes would ensure that apprentices receive broad-based, quality training that would provide them with marketable skills for their entire careers and further the DOL’s goals of ‘rebuilding the middle class’ and ‘connecting a diverse workforce to family-sustaining jobs,'" said Stan Kolbe, SMACNA's Executive Director, Government, and Political Affairs.

In more than 40 pages of comments, ABC urged the DOL to withdraw what it termed the  "illegal and misguided provisions" of the proposal, claiming the updated standards would decrease GRAP participation by employers, apprentices and apprenticeship, career and technical education program providers.

"The proposal reduces flexibility by replacing competency-based GRAPs with time-based GRAPs, eliminates state government’s ability to approve apprenticeship programs for new occupations needed to keep up with the modern economy and incorporates dozens of expensive new recordkeeping and administrative requirements. Overall, this proposal will cost the regulated community more than $1.3 billion over the next 10 years, according to the DOL’s own flawed and stunningly low-ball regulatory cost analysis," said Ben Brubeck, ABC vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs. 

In a ABC’s recent survey, feedback from GRAP stakeholders on the proposal was overwhelmingly negative, with 94% of respondents stating that the proposed rule will increase the costs of participating in or sponsoring a GRAP and 90% saying they would be less likely to start their own GRAP as a result of the DOL’s proposal.

But without the RAP reform standards, SMACNA counters that the sheet metal and air conditioning construction industry’s ability to meet design complexities and "owner demands for project excellence will continue to be compromised."