Acosta Praises Manufacturers, Pushes Apprenticeships

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By Ben Penn

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta saluted manufacturing employers for being an engine of job growth, before asking them for a favor: Participate in President Donald Trump’s initiative to expand apprenticeships.

“I ask that you consider this apprenticeship program, that you consider investing in the American worker, because upfront investing in workforce skills today will pay off in productivity, it will pay off in lower turnover,” Acosta said June 21 at the National Association of Manufacturers Summit in Washington. He suggested that businesses follow the lead of such companies as Ford Motor Co., Harley Davidson, and Alcoa that have developed apprenticeship models to train new hires.

Trump signed an executive order June 15 directing the DOL to issue new regulations to help businesses, trade groups, unions, and others to develop their own standards for the earn-while-you-learn training model, with less government oversight. The order also seeks to remove the burdens of the traditional DOL apprenticeship registration process to attract more employer buy-in.

Various industry sectors are jockeying for Acosta’s attention in his early days in office. NAM is especially well-positioned to have the secretary’s ear. Not only does it represent the same producers that are in line to benefit from the White House “Buy American” and apprenticeship executive orders, but also Acosta’s chief of staff, Wayne Palmer, used to consult for NAM.

“The impact of manufacturing on the American economy simply can’t be underestimated,” Acosta said.

Regulations Not Addressed

To fully ingratiate himself to NAM and other employer associations, the labor secretary will need to reverse at least some DOL regulations that were issued under the Obama administration. Acosta’s keynote address skirted that issue, even after NAM President and Chief Executive Officer Jay Timmons didn’t shy away from it in his introductory remarks.

“Over the last eight years, the business community has had kind of a rough relationship with the Department of Labor,” Timmons said. “The regulations coming out of the Department of Labor were not good for business overall and were not good for investment and jobs in this country.”

Senate Republicans ensured Acosta’s confirmation in a mostly party-line vote earlier this year, arguing his presence atop the DOL would mean the reconsideration and removal of many of the same rules manufacturers and other industry groups oppose.

A 2016 NAM report detailed the compliance costs of recent labor regulations, attacking the rules for curbing job growth. Two of the 2016 rules drawing particular criticism in that study, however, never took effect and are now under DOL review: a rule designed to expand workers’ access to overtime pay and a regulation to impose stricter limits on employee exposure to silica.

Those same regulations are hailed by Democrats, unions, and worker advocacy groups for providing long-needed updates to worker protection laws.

But despite Acosta’s silence on the DOL’s regulatory process in his NAM summit speech, the secretary has already sent signals that he’ll be addressing employers’ concerns.

“We’ve already had a couple of rollbacks of some interpretation memos, which the business community has gladly welcomed. It’s a start; now we have to go look at the regulations,” Amanda Wood, NAM’s employment policy director, told Bloomberg BNA. “I think Acosta coming here is a sign that he’s willing to work with employers, especially in the manufacturing sector.”

Earlier this month, the DOL removed two controversial guidance letters that detailed how the Obama administration’s Wage and Hour Division interpreted joint employment and independent contractor misclassification.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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