The Finishing Trades Institute of the Mid-Atlantic Region

The Institution

Since 1945, when its apprenticeship standards were first registered with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), The Finishing Trades Institute of the Mid-Atlantic Region (FTI) has supplied Philadelphia-area contractors with the most highly skilled workers in the construction industry. In 2009, the FTI became the first stand-alone building trade’s apprenticeship program to achieve accreditation with The Council on Occupational Education (COE). The Associate Specialized Technology program in Glazing Technologies was awarded accreditation in 2016. Because of its demonstrated commitment to innovation and the professional development of its staff and apprentices, the FTI was recognized with DOL’s Registered Apprenticeship Innovator and Trailblazer Award and Construction Users Round Table’s Workforce Development Award in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

The FTI currently offers four-year apprenticeship programs for our nation’s future union coatings applicator specialists, commercial painter and wall coverers, drywall finishers, glaziers, and multi-craft decorators. After 6,000 hours of on-the-job training and, on average, 800 hours of classroom curriculum, the apprentices can smoothly transition into a job in their chosen trade.

The Challenges

In 2009, the FTI was the only stand-alone union and apprenticeship program in the U.S and, as such, experienced challenges when seeking accreditation. Whereas most trade and technical colleges were able to seek accreditation with COE based on long-established accreditation standards, the FTI and COE quickly learned that apprenticeship programs required a custom set of standards unique to the type of curriculum and training they offer. “We’re a square peg in a round hole,” says Dennis McDonough, the recruitment coordinator for the FTI.

The Commission recognized the need for flexibility and customization of standards for non-Title IV institutions and, with the help of FTI staff, set forth to develop and write them. The new Handbook of Accreditation for Registered Apprenticeship Schools (RAS) and National ERISA Training Institutes (NETI) was adopted at the business meeting of the Council by the delegates on November 4, 2016.

The COE Accreditation Process

Once the COE standards for the accreditation of apprenticeship programs were written and FTI achieved accreditation, the work didn’t stop there. The continued effort of self-studies, team visits and annual meetings takes place in steady cycles and, for FTI, became the third set of standards that FTI follows, says McDonough: “We also have to meet standards with the Department of Education and the Department of Labor.”

The opportunity for introspection is an often-praised facet of a self-study and McDonough agrees that it is a welcomed scrutiny:

“The [accreditation] process made us better – it makes us examine how we look at ourselves and how we conduct business. Even employers’ associations and signatory contractors have a lot of feedback in the process. They tell us what is newly relevant in the construction industry. There is a constant upgrading of our skills, and we have to stay on top.”

Once the self-study is complete, FTI hosts a team of COE members from across the country who come to assess the programs based on the established criteria. McDonough appreciates the outsider’s perspective a team visit brings:

“The team visits are absolutely phenomenal. What’s good is that a lot of the members come from schools that are accredited and they know what to do. They can tell us, ‘This is how we do it here, and this could be helpful for your school.’”

The Results

The FTI sought accreditation for two primary purposes: to create better-trained and better-educated journeypersons; and to aid the recruitment process. It’s achieved both objectives.

The retention rate at the FTI is 99% and, because signatory contractors only take on apprentices they can hire, job placement is at 100%. Whereas the average four-year college student graduates with approximately $30,000 in debt, FTI students accrue zero debt as part of the earn-as-you-learn model. In the Philadelphia area, a glazier can start earning $44/hour after receiving a license (approximately $90,000 in annual salary). When it comes to career paths, the sky’s the limit, says McDonough:

“The path is up to the individual. They can take skills anywhere in the country and transfer into another union. Our apprentices have become foremen, estimators, company owners and project managers. Some pursue Associate’s degrees with partner universities. Where else you can get paid to get college credits?”

Accreditation has evened the playing field for trade colleges and apprentice programs alike. McDonough attends many recruiting events for high school students and finds that parents appreciate accredited programs with proven results: “From my perspective, accreditation does nothing but benefit us.”