Can Trump sell apprenticeship programs to America?
Wednesday, February 07, 2018
Chances are that more Americans are familiar with "The Apprentice," the reality TV show formerly starring the current president of the United States, than they are with apprenticeship programs. Today, graduates from such programs constitute just 0.2 percent of the labor force.
For the uninitiated, apprenticeship programs are an arrangement between employer and employee "that includes a paid-work component and an educational or instructional component, wherein an individual obtains workplace-relevant knowledge and skills."
The quoted portion above comes directly from the second meeting of President Donald Trump's Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion earlier this week. Trump established the task force last year by executive order, and since then, he's culled 20 leaders from major corporations, trade and industry groups, educational institutions and labor unions to advise the administration on the topic.
Secretary of Labor R. Alexander Acosta and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos chaired the virtual meeting, and both emphasized the Trump administration's desire to get the apprenticeship expansion program rolled out as quickly as possible. The administration estimates that millions of jobs are presently going unfilled because employers can't find employees with the required skills.
That's what's known as the demand side of employer-employee equation. On the supply side, employees have their own set of demands, eloquently expressed by Marc Morial from the National Urban League, which has worked with the Department of Labor on workforce development issues for five decades.
"What excites me about this, and what I believe the opportunity is in the apprenticeship arena, is that we have many, many young Americans who are in some cases marginally connected to the workforce," said Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans. "The way to get them into the workforce is not only by connecting them to a job, but connecting them to an opportunity so they can enhance their skills. They have a chance to move into sustainable employment on a long-term basis."
Setting the stage, Morial noted that not only is there a lack of skilled employees, but there are also substantial mismatches between employees who are skilled and the companies who need them.
"The challenge we face is identifying the geographic areas of the country where the unemployment rate is still higher than the national average ... and matching that with industries and businesses that have job openings and are hiring," he said.
So, supply and demand, basic economics — pretty simple, right? Not so fast.
There are many stakeholders involved, each with legitimate claims. The second task force meeting kept things simple, focusing on recommendations from two of its four subcommittees, which shed light on both the supply of skilled workers and employer demand for specified skills.
Emily DeRocco, who chairs the education and credentialing subcommittee, is a workforce development specialist and principal at E3. She's also the former assistant labor secretary during the George W. Bush administration. After introducing a putative glossary of terms for the task force to ruminate upon, she presented the subcommittee's findings, which included reforming the Registered Apprenticeship program "to modernize the system and encourage greater involvement by employers and industry sectors."
The Registered Apprenticeship program is administered by the DOL Office of Apprenticeships and accounts for nearly all of the 0.2 percent of the workforce that has been trained in such programs. It has worked closely with the North America's Building Trades Union, as its president Sean McGarvey pointed out.
"The majority of the folks who are in the Registered Apprenticeship system now, according to your data, are in our programs," Garvey said. "Our partners are 100,000 employers participating in the Registered Apprenticeship program. So I'm a little concerned and would like to have some more explanation of 'reform' ... when what I hear from our 100,000 plus contractors is that they love the system, it's easy to use and they're not interested in degrading that system that's worked so well in our industry."
DeRocco explained that the Trump administration intends to expand apprenticeship programs into new economic sectors that have different demands than the construction industry.
"We have new industry sectors for the first time, the hotel and lodging associations, IT professionals, for example," she said. "Many of the issues related to the registered apprenticeship program that may in fact be exactly what the construction industry needs and wants and is happy with are not aligned to the economic sectors to which we want to open an expanded apprenticeship opportunity."
The American Hotel and Lodging Association's Shelly Wair, chair of the Attracting Business To Apprenticeship Subcommittee, explained the challenges her organization has encountered.
"I agree that the registered apprenticeship program has been a phenomenal success for the construction industry," she said. "The hotel sector ... we're sort of newbies to this base, and really reached out and registered our program federally in the summer of last year. Our concerns around reform are not to the qualifications that it builds or the skills that it builds, but the challenges just to navigate it with our employers."
Indeed, Trump's proposed apprenticeship expansion presents a brave new world to both American corporations and American workers. Nevertheless, Labor Secretary Acosta insisted the administration intends to pursue the policy.
"In the construction and trade fields, we openly acknowledge the deep investment that's been made by private-sector dollars," Acosta said. "Our intent is to use that as a model to expand apprenticeships broadly and widely.
"Other industry sectors have had difficulty with the registered apprenticeship model," he continued. "The president's vision and the vision of the executive order is to create these industrywide certified apprenticeships, which would be different from the registered apprenticeships, that would open up apprenticeship model to other industries."
American University economist Robert Lerman, in a widely read report, "Expanding Apprenticeship Opportunities in the United States," emphasizes that marketing such programs is paramount, since they're relatively unknown in the United States, compared to Canada, the U.K. and Europe. He believes the economic and social benefits — particularly the diverse workforce alluded to by Morial — favor such programs.
While the apprenticeship expansion task force's meeting indicates much work is to be done, time is of the essence. It's only an advisory committee, and it must soon present its proposals to the OMB for inclusion in the fiscal 2019 budget.
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