Merit Apprenticeship Alliance: Building the Foundation for a Skilled Workforce

Elizabeth Landry

When New York State labor law changed about fifteen years ago and began allowing public owners to require apprenticeship training for all contractors, Penny Hazer saw there was a need for open-shop (non-union) apprentice resourcing within the statewide construction community. In 2007, Hazer created Merit Apprenticeship Alliance, an open-shop, multi-employer, registered apprenticeship program sponsor approved by the NYSDOL for apprenticeship training in the Carpentry, Operating Engineer, Skilled Laborer, Ironworker and Cement Finisher/Mason trades.

As the President of Merit Alliance, Hazer has over 35 years of experience in occupational training and apprenticeship. She has also worked as a carpenter and as a BOCES instructor of vocational agriculture. The many years she’s spent honing her own skills and teaching skills to others instilled in her a passion for helping people gain self-sufficiency through hands-on training.

“I’ve always believed that teaching people to do things gives them a sense of confidence and sustainability that’s really unparalleled. If you teach people to do things, they always have those skills. Nobody can take skills away from you,” said Hazer.

In order to recruit apprenticeship candidates who can benefit from new trade skills, Hazer and her team utilize many avenues: pre-apprentice programs, job fairs, career shows, public job postings, social media, and CBOs, or community-based organizations. The Merit Alliance team screens and trains apprentice candidates and then assigns them to work for one of their contractor partners on an as-needed basis. Apprentices then take part in on-the-job training where they learn valuable skills in their trade. When construction work is more difficult to find, typically in the winter months, apprentices participate in Merit Alliance’s educational branch, Merit Alliance Construction Training Institute, or MACTI, which provides apprentices with NCCER-accredited educational training. MACTI also provides training to other firms and workers interested in expanding skills, improving safety and productivity.

Many of Merit Alliance’s apprentices come from socially and economically disadvantaged communities, and 85% of the apprentices identify as minorities. “Our apprentice population is pretty diverse, and we focus on that. The under-served populations just need an extra hand and they are an untapped resource. They sometimes can’t figure out how to get into an apprenticeship program simply because no one has reached out to them to get them started. They just need someone to tell them, ‘You can do this’,” Hazer explained.

Of course, Merit Alliance’s programs not only benefit apprentices – they also provide high value to the organization’s contractor partners. By working with the Merit Alliance, contractors get to be a part of the training momentum and start to develop a skilled workforce. Participation with Merit Alliance also takes the burden off of contractors to find apprentices that meet their specific trade needs while also meeting the stringent requirements of New York State to bid on public jobs.

Jason Poole, Resource Developer at Merit Alliance, has seen first-hand how the organization’s expertise in meeting the NYSDOL’s apprenticeship requirements has helped contractors gain access to more bids.

“New York State law allows public owners to require contractors to participate in registered apprenticeship training. A lot of contractors bypass these bids because they don’t want to deal with the apprentice requirements. My goal is to educate as many contractors as possible that they don’t have to pass on these bids. Our multi-employer apprenticeship program can help them meet the bid requirements and this allows many smaller, newer contractors to consider a wider scope of bids,” Poole explained.

In order to ensure that their contractors continuously meet the public owner’s strict apprenticeship requirements, Merit Alliance operates with a high level of operational integrity. Hazer emphasized that transparency and integrity is at the heart of everything they do. 

“We work with about 130 contractors across New York state and New Jersey. We’ve got about 50 apprentices currently. Our mission is to make sure our apprentices get the highest level of training possible – in full compliance with NYSDOL regulations, and with the NCCER – our national accreditation agency. In my mind, the most significant piece we do is maintain integrity to the rules. If we manage all elements of the program true to the standards, our contractors can rely on the Alliance 100%. Alliance staff commit to working with apprentices and contractors to ensure that both succeed. Apprentice graduation rates are well above 50% for three trades – this helps our partners be more competitive in the bidding market, and our apprentices secure sustainable careers in construction,” said Hazer.

“Our goal is not to be the biggest apprenticeship program for open-shop contractors – just the best.  We believe our contractors are among the ‘best of the best’, and an asset to owners,” she added.

Clearly, when apprentices are successful, contractors are in turn successful. Perhaps the best way to measure the success of Merit Alliance’s programs is to consider how many apprentice’s lives have been changed for the better. Both Hazer and Poole had numerous stories to share about apprentices whose journeys demonstrate the value the organization brings to so many people.

“A young woman had spent a significant amount of time in a federal corrections facility. We assigned her to work for various contractors throughout the course of her program. There were times when we struggled, but we ultimately succeeded. The apprentice finally landed with a company in eastern New York and we celebrated her graduation with her and her many family members. She is currently the crew leader for traffic control for one of our very respected contractors. She found her fit and she’s happy. She’s every bit of rough and tumble but now she’s grounded and enjoying life,” Hazer recalled.

Looking to the future, although Merit Alliance may not be the biggest apprenticeship sponsor program, it’s Hazer’s mission that it will continue to be among the best. “Integrity is our mantra,” she said. “We’ll continue to grow with contractors who are committed to safety and quality, just like we are.”