Commentary | Construction unions are paving the road to debt-free educations

President Biden’s plan for federal student loan-debt forgiveness has come as a sigh of relief for millions of Americans who together owe nearly $1.75 trillion in student loan debt – $31 billion of that in Massachusetts alone. This innovative plan cannot come fast enough. Equally important is the promoting of alternative post-secondary options, such as a union apprenticeship. Here in Massachusetts, building trades unions lead the way in offering an approach to a bright future without thye incurrence of mountains of debt. 

Some people learn better by working with their hands than sitting in a classroom, but everyone fares better when they aren’t starting their careers in the red. A union apprenticeship doesn’t just provide a debt-free job path, it offers the chance to “Earn While You Learn” by simultaneously providing a paycheck and hands-on training. It gets your foot in the door, allows you to build practical skills, and creates connections that offer a competitive advantage in landing a job.

President Biden gets it right: “The middle class built America, and unions built the middle class.” In Massachusetts, more than 75,000 workers can count on family-sustaining jobs thanks to building trades unions, which, with eyes firmly on the future, invest more than $55 million every year in their apprentice training programs.

But we can do more by way of investing in our communities and in our future. We encourage the next governor and Legislature to follow the lead of President Biden by requiring registered apprentices on all public construction beginning in 2024, and on all construction funded by state tax credits in 2025. Doing so will ensure that apprentices have the necessary work hours to complete their training and provide more economic opportunities for Massachusetts residents.

In addition to adding value to the economy, building trades unions are breaking down barriers within the construction industry. Massachusetts is leading the way on this front, with triple the national average of female apprentices. Some 92 percent of all women apprentices in Massachusetts can proudly say they are union members. Even with a college education, women face a heavier debt burden than men and also a significant pay gap, earning just 82 cents for every dollar a male worker earns. Thanks to the guarantee of a union contract, building trades unions combat these inequities, ensuring equal pay for equal work,

Building trades unions are also breaking down barriers for people of color – barriers that have led to Black college graduates owing an average of $25,000 more in college loans than white graduates. As a result, many people of color are choosing union apprenticeships over classroom work. In fact, 85 percent of all apprentices of color in Massachusetts are being trained in union apprenticeship programs. And with wages 17 percent higher than their non-union counterparts, Black union workers have more breathing room to cover their needs.

Unions don’t just fight for your financial security while you’re on the job. They also fight for dignified retirements by negotiating secure pensions and annuities, as well as comprehensive health insurance for members and their families. The difference that unions make is about more than wages and benefits — it’s about respect and security now and in the future.

If Americans want to escape the crushing debt of student loans, unions are part of the solution. A union apprenticeship offers a debt-free path to life-changing careers with family-sustaining wages and benefits. Opportunity is calling in building trades unions. Take the call – unions have a place for you.

Frank Callahan is the president of Massachusetts Building Trades Unions (MBTU).

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