The blog of the Urban Institute
April 9, 2020

Three Ways Policymakers Can Support Apprenticeships during the Pandemic

April 9, 2020

Governments around the world are developing a range of policy interventions to support workers affected by the pandemic. US policymakers should take note of what is working abroad to provide workers—especially apprentices—with a comprehensive safety net during this economic crisis and public health emergency.

In Australia, the government launched a Continuing Apprentices Placement Service program to help apprentices find reassignments during the pandemic. This program aims to ensure apprentices can continue learning their professions if their employers shut down. Additionally, the Australian government will subsidize 50 percent of apprentices’ wages to support their retention until September 2020.

The United Kingdom declared that, if apprentices experience a break in learning, government funding for apprenticeships will not be at risk. The government will also help apprentices find alternative work if needed.

In Germany, Kurzarbeit, or short-time work, was used extensively during the Great Recession and supported a quicker economic rebound. Kurzarbeit allows firms to keep workers on the job at reduced hours and salary while the government pays workers and apprentices for time off the job during a slowdown. During the last major economic downturn, Germany avoided many unnecessary layoffs of apprentices and their mentors. During the pandemic, Germany has expanded Kurzarbeit and covered more workers’ businesses to bolster a fast recovery.

Here in the United States, our apprenticeship system is still in its infancy, and our policy efforts to protect apprentices are lagging. Despite significant growth—registered apprenticeships are up 56 percent since 2013, thanks to new investments and national focus—American apprentices make up only about 0.2 percent of workers nationally, compared with Germany’s 3.7 percent and the United Kingdom’s 2.7 percent.

How do we ensure apprentices can rejoin the workforce after the pandemic? How do we protect the investment we’ve made in our nascent apprenticeship system?

Policymakers can certainly take cues from policy actions abroad. But we can also ensure that current and future US actions, such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, provide coverage to apprentices, their employers, and apprenticeship sponsors.  

To protect apprentices and continue the expansion of Registered Apprenticeship Programs, policymakers should consider the following strategies:

1. Increased guidance and communication from the federal government

The US Department of Labor should provide more guidance to the national apprenticeship system to ensure sponsors and employers understand what flexibilities and funding are available to them and their apprentices through the FFCRA and CARES Act. The department should provide guidance on their apprenticeship website that many apprentices are eligible to seek unemployment insurance and point apprenticeship sponsors to the small business loans in the CARES Act for job retention supports.   

Some apprentices may need to find new apprenticeship agreements, and the US could explore programs like those offered in Australia and the United Kingdom. Good guidance from the department now could help ensure many more apprenticeships continue through or following the pandemic.

2. Short-time compensation for apprentices        

An enhanced short-time compensation (STC) program for apprentices could ensure fewer become unemployed. Under STC, apprentices (and employees) whose hours have been reduced would receive partial unemployment benefits, rather than being laid off or furloughed. The federal government and states would fund 100 percent of the costs employers incur by retaining employees.

Currently, only 27 states have robust STC programs (PDF) that meet the federal definition. Although STC is emphasized in the CARES Act, more states and employers need to adopt these programs to have a greater effect.

Also, if implemented more broadly, STC would stabilize health insurance for all workers, as most receive coverage through their employer.

3. Paid remote learning for apprentices

The Department of Labor provided guidance (download) on the permissibility of classroom instruction, but it could do more. The federal government could provide additional flexibility for paid remote learning and training and funding supports for apprenticeship programs to ensure more apprentices continue their training.

Policy changes and investments, like paid online learning for the next few months, could prevent apprentices from being laid off or requiring substantial unemployment insurance  benefits to cover them during a work stoppage.  

Up until a few weeks ago, the federal government and employers were taking steps to expand apprenticeships in the United States—and though things have certainly changed, they still can still ensure apprenticeships continue to thrive. What is needed now is flexibility and clear guidance to ensure the resilience of our apprentices and our apprenticeship system. These three recommendations could help protect vulnerable apprentices and our investments and support post-pandemic economic recovery.            

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