Constructing Our Future

Working Together to Prepare Students for Careers in the Building Trades

Great career opportunities await students today in the US construction industry, a product of massive public investment in rebuilding American infrastructure, bringing manufacturing back to the United States, and shifting energy production to new green sources. But here is the dilemma we face: with the decline in vocational education over the past 40 years, combined with the push to send every student to college, many middle and high school students do not have access to shop classes or career and technical education (CTE) programs. As a result, they don’t know these opportunities are available.

Sometimes young people find the building trades by accident, and when they do, it can change their lives. Michele Tammo Wafo is a young man from Cameroon, the youngest of 13 children. A few years back, his siblings pooled their money to send Michele to the United States for an education. But he fell on hard times and ended up living under a bridge in Austin, Texas. The only work he could find was driving a cab. Michele’s life was hard—but one day he took a fare to the plumbers and pipefitters union (United Association Local 286) training center, where he learned about a free program designed to prepare young people for Registered Apprenticeships* that lead to careers in local building trades. For Michele, that was all he needed to know. He was first in line for the next class. And the rest is history. Michele recently completed his apprenticeship and is now a licensed plumber in Austin. His employer was so impressed with his work ethic and life story that he has sponsored Michele to return to Cameroon and bring back his wife and son. A lucky coincidence brought Michele to the building trades, but there is a better way for your students to learn about our career opportunities.

Just as every good school relies on collaboration between teachers, administrators, students, and families, our ability to inform students of the career opportunities in construction and to prepare them academically rests in part on collaboration between the building trades unions and AFT members. North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) is a labor organization made up of 14 national and international unions and more than 330 provincial, state, and local trades councils. Together, we represent more than three million skilled craft professionals in the United States and Canada in our mission to increase work opportunities in the building trades, secure wages that support families, and protect the standards of our professions. In this brief article, we lay out what we see as the vital role that AFT teachers and counselors can play in helping us recruit and train what our president, Sean McGarvey, and the Biden administration have called “the infrastructure generation.”

In construction today, the building trades unions and our partner contractors confront two intertwined challenges related to the increased demand for skilled workers. This increase in demand can be traced directly to the Biden administration’s decision to invest billions of dollars here in the United States. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed with bipartisan support in 2021, was designed to rebuild our nation’s badly neglected infrastructure—including schools, roads, transportation systems, and broadband access. Similarly, the CHIPs and Science Act, which passed in 2022 with bipartisan support, was enacted to bring back critical manufacturing jobs in important sectors such as electric vehicle battery manufacturing and production of the semiconductor computer chips found in all electronics today. Further, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act contains robust labor standards, including tax breaks for developers that employ Registered Apprentices and pay them decent wages and benefits. These standards were designed to generate good-paying union construction jobs. Together, these laws are projected to create millions of new construction jobs across the United States. According to one estimate, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act alone will generate 1.6 million construction and extraction jobs over 10 years, with millions of additional jobs in transportation and materials moving.1

Thus, the first challenge we face is the need to recruit and train enough Registered Apprentices to meet the increased demand for highly skilled trades workers. A second and related challenge is to diversify the construction workforce as it expands. Simply put, there are too few women and people of color in construction today. Women, for example, make up roughly 6 percent of building trades Registered Apprentices today, a number which is going up but has been too low for too long.2 But we can change our industry with vital help from AFT members. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the other related legislation provide NABTU and the AFT with a unique opportunity to grow a construction workforce that better reflects the communities in which projects are built and that guarantees middle-class employment for generations of Americans, too many of whom have been historically underserved in construction.

How can NABTU and AFT members work together to introduce students to more pathways to career success and strengthen infrastructure in our communities? It might start with a few simple requests of AFT teachers and school counselors. We want students in all grades—from kindergartners to graduating seniors—to be aware of the robust career opportunities available today in building trades Registered Apprenticeship programs.

Together, NABTU and its 90,000 signatory contractors (who have all signed collective bargaining agreements with the building trades) invest $2 billion annually in Registered Apprenticeship and journey-level training. Within this system, our 14 affiliated building trades unions and their contractor partners jointly operate more than 1,600 training centers and train 70 percent of all construction apprentices in the United States. Since 2017, NABTU’s affiliated unions and signatory contractors have registered an average of 73,000 new apprentices annually, making NABTU’s Registered Apprenticeship system the largest such training program in any US industry.

In our “earn-while-you-learn” Registered Apprenticeship programs, there is no cost to the apprentice for their training. It’s all paid for through our collective bargaining agreements, which means no student loan debt when graduates complete their apprenticeship. Construction is the only industry we know of where the current generation of workers has designated money through collective bargaining to pay for the apprenticeship training for the next generation of workers. In addition, many of our Registered Apprenticeship programs have been assessed for college credit, which means that students can pursue an accelerated associate or bachelor’s degree once they finish their apprenticeship, equipped with the college credits they earned from their apprenticeship. It’s a good deal. Our apprentices work full-time and attend classes (often college credit bearing) at night and on weekends for three to five years, depending on the trade. When they graduate, they have high-quality, portable skills that provide them with a middle-class lifestyle. With the high demand today and opportunities for overtime, some building trades apprentices are making six-figure wage and benefit packages.

By completing their apprenticeship, workers achieve journey-level status. As journey-level workers, building trades union members can continue to receive training at no additional cost to themselves for the duration of their careers.

Collaborating for Brighter Futures

What NABTU has in common with the AFT is a commitment to excellence in education, training, and equitable opportunities for young people. Given the new demand for electricians, iron workers, construction laborers, painters, plumbers and pipefitters, bricklayers, elevator constructors, insulators, and operating engineers, we need AFT teachers and school counselors to spread the word among their students and communities that union construction is a viable and well-paying career, especially for young women and students of color. This “word spreading” could include positive images of female construction workers and those from communities of color. You may be familiar with the expression “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” We need elementary and middle-level teachers and counselors to explain to students that our career opportunities are real and attainable for everyone.

At the secondary level, we request that teachers and counselors make their students and advisees aware of the opportunities available today. And we need them to steer interested students into classes, such as applied math or CTE construction skills classes, that will prepare them to successfully enroll in building trades Registered Apprenticeships after they graduate.

Our last request of AFT teachers and counselors is to advocate for the integration of the Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (MC3) in their schools. The MC3 is a comprehensive, 120-hour, pre-apprenticeship curriculum that is currently offered in approximately 75 US high schools as part of Apprenticeship Readiness Programs (ARPs). In 2007, NABTU spearheaded efforts to develop these programs, which can be offered in adult reentry programs, high schools and community colleges, and programs for justice system–involved individuals. The MC3 was designed in 2008 for use in ARPs to prepare young people with the professional skills necessary for successful entry into construction Registered Apprenticeship programs, based upon an informed choice about the particular trade they want to pursue. The MC3 teaches students construction skills and knowledge, including an introduction to blueprint reading, construction health and safety, tools, materials, and—most importantly—construction math to improve their chances of successful enrollment in Registered Apprenticeship programs. These programs are designed to be flexible and meet the needs of the participants. Since 2016, 22,000 participants have successfully completed the MC3, of which 77 percent identified as people of color and 20 percent identified as women.

In 2022, NABTU and other industry stakeholders created a new organization called TradesFutures to continue the work of refining the MC3 and creating new ARPs in partnership with community-based and educational organizations—including the AFT. As we see it, the MC3 is the critical link between two of our nation’s premier education systems: the US public school system and the building trades’ privately funded, high-quality Registered Apprenticeship system. By working together, we can rebuild our nation’s infrastructure and our middle class at the same time.

As AFT members know well, we need to ensure young people have full access to career opportunities that will provide them with the ability to support themselves and their future families. The current generation of students will encounter a future many of us have never imagined. They are interested in doing good in their communities while also making a good living. We believe the building trades offer young people opportunities to do both. There has never been a better time to capitalize on federal and private investments in infrastructure to lift up our local communities and provide students with the tools to build a future they can believe in.

Let’s help them build this future together!

Tom Kriger is the director of education and research at North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). His previous positions include professor of labor studies, provost and vice president for academics at the National Labor College, and assistant to the president and director of legislation and research for United University Professions (AFT Local 2190). Nicole Schwartz is the executive director of TradesFutures. Previously, she was NABTU’s Apprenticeship Readiness Program coordinator. She began her career as a middle and high school social studies and Spanish teacher with the Milwaukee Public Schools.

*Registered Apprenticeships are approved by the US Department of Labor or by a state agency; they are created with industry representatives and provide paid pathways to good jobs. To learn more, visit (return to article)

NABTU also supports the recruitment and retention of our female members by sponsoring Tradeswomen Build Nations, the largest conference of women in construction in the world. In addition, TradesFutures has funded childcare pilot programs in New York City and Milwaukee, addressing one of the fundamental barriers to women in the construction industry. (return to article)

To learn more about using the MC3 in schools, see (return to article)


1. A. Carnevale and N. Smith, 15 Million Infrastructure Jobs: An Economic Shot in the Arm to the COVID-19 Recession (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2021),

2. C. Bilginsoy and R. Ormiston, The State of Registered Apprenticeship Training in the Construction Trades, Institute for Construction Employment Research, 2024,

[Illustrations by Egle Plytnikaite]

American Educator, Spring 2024