The blog of the Urban Institute
December 16, 2020

Three Ways the New Administration Can Kickstart Economic Recovery in the First 100 Days through Apprenticeships

For many, the November jobs numbers brought hope. The US Department of Labor (DOL) reported 245,000 jobs were created in November. But many industries, including construction, manufacturing, and health care, have cooled or flatlined hiring. To make matters worse, an estimated 12 million workers are considered underemployed, only able to find part-time work. These trends, among others, indicate a lopsided jobs recovery in need of intervention. 

To help businesses recover and to prepare Americans for a transformed labor market in which millions of workers may need to retrain and retool, the new administration could turn to Registered Apprenticeship. The program is a time-tested strategy to train workers for the jobs currently available in the current labor market and for the work of the future, while helping businesses overcome talent shortages and improving their competitiveness.

At least 150,000 employers nationwide have apprenticeship programs, including tech innovators like Google and Tesla. The incoming administration can not only capitalize on the 20-year high of national apprenticeship expansion with 633,000 active apprentices, but also focus on building a quality system of registered apprenticeships. Here are three ways president-elect Joe Biden could use Registered Apprenticeship to spur economic recovery and social justice in the first 100 days.

1. Build with the power of the purse and policy

In the absence of congressional action, the incoming administration could use its spending and policy powers to advance apprenticeships. One way to activate the federal tools required would be by instituting a new executive order to supercharge government funding and focus on registered apprenticeships. 

Specifically, the executive order could establish a new “skills cabinet” to review and revise existing policies, resources, and purchasing power that lends additional support toward an expanded Registered Apprenticeship program. In particular, the skills cabinet could use the power of policy to add federal benefits to apprenticeships to offset employer and apprentice training costs. And promising efforts, such as the Department of Education’s Federal Work Study apprenticeship pilot, could be expanded to support more apprentices in their chosen fields.

Federal contracts could also encourage more apprenticeships by incorporating a new federal Apprenticeship Utilization Agreement, which shows potential in states like New Jersey (PDF) on public works projects. A national version of this policy could incentivize government contractors to start apprenticeship programs in a range of sectors and new occupations in need of trained workers and capital. 

2. Bring back focus on Registered Apprenticeship

New federal apprenticeship efforts should focus on the program proven to work. Unlike the new Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program that began in earnest in 2020, Registered Apprenticeship has substantial research backing its efficacy. Studies show that Registered Apprenticeship programs are among the most effective workforce development programs, with participants earning  $300,000 more in lifetime earnings than nonparticipants. Employers who sponsor registered apprenticeships also have positive outcomes in terms of satisfaction and program quality, returns on their investment, and improvements in innovation and productivity. Refocusing the DOL’s funding on Registered Apprenticeship would mark a return to an evidence-based approach.

Government alone cannot repair the job market, so the new administration should leverage the private sector’s capabilities and knowledge to support recovery. Reconstituting the now-defunct Advisory Committee on Apprenticeship (ACA), disbanded by the current administration, could create a source of real expertise including labor, employers, and public members. Bringing back the ACA would provide the DOL with insight into which industries are hiring and where registered apprenticeships can be more responsive to labor market trends.

3. Use the White House bully pulpit for apprenticeships

Presidential pronouncements can spark and inspire action in government and the private sector. Previously, former president Obama and President Trump have used their office to elevate the importance of apprenticeship.

Presidential pronouncements have helped launch realprogress on a six-year national apprenticeship expansion and increased funding to ensure that apprenticeships are inclusive. The new administration can demonstrate its commitment to apprenticeships at a similarly high level by announcing its goals of expanding and improving equity of apprenticeships in the State of the Union and through executive order. This commitment could spur more companies to start apprenticeships and make it clear that equity will not be an afterthought. 

Efforts to expand racial diversity in apprenticeship have occurred through previous administrations, with funding streams like a 2016 contract awarding $20.4 million to industry and equity partners. But these grants were not renewed in 2020. Research shows that expanding apprenticeships into new occupations can increase workforce diversity when paired with funding for programs that promote retention of women and people of color. The new administration can prioritize integrating workforce development with workplace equity through apprenticeships and make investments using innovative approaches that deliver opportunities to workers, strengthen institutions, and build policy.

The incoming administration can set bold and realistic goals in the fiscal year 2022 Congressional Budget Justification for apprenticeship expansion and equity. Or, to quote president-elect Biden on how federal budgets express our values, “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

By prioritizing Registered Apprenticeship as a real-time jobs training strategy, the new administration can promote economic recovery in its first 100 days. These three strategies can catalyze apprenticeship programs and help harness and inspire the private sector to join the administration in a more effective, equitable, and expansive jobs recovery.

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