The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 2, 2017

Appreciating apprenticeships: Trump plan can boost labor quality

July 3, 2017

A version of this post was published by The Hill.

President Trump’s ringing call for expanding apprenticeship at a White House ceremony last month should be welcome to all who favor a cost-effective approach to upgrading skills, raising job quality, and widening routes to rewarding careers.

The president’s first steps to achieve this goal were signing an executive order titled “Expanding Apprenticeship in America” and nearly doubling the funding for apprenticeships to $200 million.

These actions follow the president’s endorsement last March of a “moonshot” proposed by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff to create 5 million apprenticeships in five years. Today, 505,000 apprentices are in the registered apprenticeship system: 410,000 in civilian sectors and 95,000 in the military. In addition, an unknown number of apprentices works in companies that have not registered their programs with the state or federal department of labor.

Reaching the 5 million target might sound impractical, but in fact, it would only require that the United States attain about the same share of apprentices in its workforce that Australia and England have already achieved.

Apprenticeship expansion has become a bipartisan goal, endorsed and acted upon by President Obama toward the end of his two terms. Bipartisan bills in Congress call for providing tax credits to companies that offer apprenticeships. Several Republican and Democratic governors are taking steps aimed at expanding apprenticeships. For example, Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) recently doubled the funding for Wisconsin’s successful youth apprenticeship program.

The president’s initial steps include a call for expanding apprenticeships in high schools, Job Corps, community colleges, and four-year colleges; widening access to apprenticeships to the formerly incarcerated, members of the armed forces, and veterans; and mandating that the secretaries of commerce and labor encourage business leaders to use apprenticeships in such key sectors as manufacturing, infrastructure, cybersecurity, and health care.

Recognizing the need for fundamental reforms in the nation’s apprenticeship system, the executive order establishes a task force to examine other administrative and legislative reforms, strategies for creating industry-recognized apprenticeships, and the best ways to encourage the private sector to create apprenticeships.

The Office of Management and Budget is tasked with overseeing a multiagency assessment of training programs. Agencies are to include evaluations of effectiveness and recommendations for reforms.

From my perspective, there is plenty of room for reform, given the weak or sometimes nonexistent impacts of many federal training programs. I hope the review would include examining why community colleges have such an uneven record, including abysmal completion rates and frequent mismatches between the training offered and the requirements of employers.

By far the most and perhaps only controversial provisions in the executive order deal with the establishment of “industry-recognized” apprenticeships. Some have criticized this move as loosening quality standards by limiting the government role in overseeing companies that sponsor apprenticeships. In fact, developing broad-based industry standards is likely to raise quality and to move the US system toward national frameworks that are common in all other countries with robust apprenticeship programs.

The current US system is unique in requiring individual companies or other sponsors (such as unions) that wish to register their programs to supply their own skill frameworks and curriculum. In half the states, the approval process is subject to the preferences of state agencies that are often highly restrictive and that require excessive numbers of mentors per apprentice.

One result is that the skill frameworks are uneven and highly variable. Moreover, the federal and state offices lack the staff to audit programs for quality, and there are no third-party assessments of apprentices.

It is hard to understand the strident criticisms of “industry-recognized” apprenticeships, given that they will not materialize until after the secretary of labor develops regulations that build in requirements for third parties. Meanwhile, the order allows sectors that have operated well under the current registered apprenticeship system, such as commercial and industrial construction, to continue to do so.

It also encourages the streamlining of review processes under the registered system. Those concerned about having two systems operating side by side should understand that the United Kingdom used a similar approach that allowed the old and new systems to coexist until unions in the old system saw the value of joining the new one.

Ideally, the federal government would join with the private sector to create a public-private institution charged with developing and diffusing national occupational frameworks for apprenticeship. This institution would research the appropriate skill requirements that allow for portability and for tailoring programs to employer needs.

It would consult with industry groups as well. Perhaps the task force will come up with a long-term solution for how to develop and gain credibility for broad-based apprenticeship frameworks.

The president’s efforts are a good start toward the long-run goals of shifting workforce policy toward successful apprenticeships and away from costlier and less effective programs. 

Photo by Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images.

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