Another rift between President Obama and his labor base surfaced Monday as the union representing the construction trades voiced its disagreement with his administration’s push to fund apprenticeship programs with tax dollars.
Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, reacted to the administration’s initiative by saying that the construction trade unions have been funding successful apprenticeship programs on their own for a century.
“I might sound a little ‘Republican-ish’ here, but we pay for our own,” Mr. McGarvey said in an interview. “All of a sudden people are starting to recognize [the value of apprenticeships], and they’ve kind of got their hand out, wanting the federal government to pay for it. We’re not enthused by that.”
He said his union isn’t opposed to the government providing “seed money” to start apprenticeship programs.
“But long-term, ongoing financing of an apprenticeship training program? We don’t think the government should be paying for that,” Mr. McGarvey said. “We think apprenticeship is a great idea, and we think employers can belly up to the bar with their own resources to pay for it. We don’t feel like our membership should pay for it [through taxes] when they’re already paying for their own.”
It’s the latest tension between Mr. Obama and big labor after the president’s highly public fight with unions and their Democratic allies in Congress last summer over passage of a massive free trade deal with Pacific Rim nations. Labor unions criticized the president for selling them out in a deal they fear will ship jobs overseas; Mr. Obama argued that the agreement will boost exports and lead to higher-paying jobs in the U.S.
The administration launched a weeklong promotion of apprenticeships Monday to highlight nearly $200 million in grants for job-training programs.
The taxpayer-funded grants will go to train and hire more than 34,000 apprentices over the next five years in industries such as health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing, “while scaling up proven programs in construction, transportation and energy,” the Labor Department said, calling it an “unprecedented federal investment.”
But not all unions are on board with the idea of government paying for apprenticeships. The Building Trades Unions’ members fund apprenticeship programs through a weekly paycheck contribution. With private investment, it’s a roughly $1 billion-a-year program that operates 1,600 training centers nationwide.
Mr. Obama has declared this week as the first National Apprenticeship Week, with more than 200 events nationwide aimed at supporting programs “that will help rebuild our middle class,” the Labor Department said.
“National Apprenticeship Week provides business, education and community leaders as well as students and workers with the unique chance to elevate and expand the conversation around the positive impact of apprenticeships in America,” said Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez. “Apprenticeships today are applying the unique ‘earn while you learn’ foundation and applying it in never-before-seen ways to expand opportunities for working people in America.”
There are about 445,000 apprenticeships across the country, and officials said apprentices earn an average starting salary of more than $50,000. Over their careers, the administration said, they will earn about $300,000 more on average than their nonapprentice peers.
There’s also renewed interest in apprenticeships as a more cost-effective alternative to traditional four-year colleges, where students often emerge heavily in debt. In the construction trades, apprenticeships last from three to five years, and the apprentices are earning a paycheck while attending classes on nights or on weekends.
Mr. McGarvey said he’s glad the administration is recognizing the value of apprenticeships as “a tried-and-true method of teaching people skill sets that put their end destination in the middle class.” He noted that both Mr. Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney talked about the issue in the 2012 campaign.
“It often takes a long time to work through the policy with an administration,” he said. “Better late than never.”
In his 2014 State of the Union address, Mr. Obama called on employers and educators to double the number of apprenticeships by 2019. The Labor Department said that since then, apprenticeships have grown by the largest amount in nearly a decade.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, has proposed that businesses receive a $1,500 tax credit for every apprentice they hire.
Mr. Obama also has proposed a $60 billion plan to make community college tuition-free for all students who qualify. That initiative, which the Republican-led Congress isn’t likely to approve, would pay for students’ college education if they maintain at least a 2.5 grade-point average and are working toward completing a degree.