Apprenticeships Focus of Contractor Watchdog Listening Sessions

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By Porter Wells

Overtures for collaboration and an interest in workforce development were the stakeholders’ takeaways from three listening sessions held by the freshly instated head of the Labor Department’s federal contractor watchdog agency.

Select federal contractors, civil rights groups, and membership association representatives were granted an exclusive opportunity to sit down with Ondray Harris, the new Trump-appointed director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. The position had sat open for more than a year during the presidential transition, sowing some unease among the federal contractor community over the office’s transparency, efficiency, and commitment to affirmative action priorities.

The listening sessions centered around four broad categories: apprenticeship programs, recognition for employers doing well, compliance evaluations, and disability outreach and recruitment. Workforce development through apprenticeship is a priority for Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. Harris shares his boss’s passion for apprenticeships and discussed how they could assist employers in achieving diversity goals while simultaneously addressing a skills gap in the U.S. workforce, Mickey Silberman, chair of the affirmative action and pay equity practice at Fortney & Scott LLC and co-chair of the Institute for Workplace Equality, told Bloomberg Law.

The OFCCP annually audits between 1 percent and 2 percent of about 200,000 federal contractor facilities to confirm and enforce compliance with three federal equal employment opportunity laws: Executive Order 11,246, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Section 4212 of the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act.

Detailed policy matters weren’t a focus of the listening meetings and Harris reportedly asked attendees to keep the particulars off the record, sources tell Bloomberg Law. The Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

New Kids on the Block

Harris and his senior adviser, Craig Leen, are still getting their OFCCP sea legs, but they were attentive to stakeholder concerns and expressed a desire to take a fresh approach to the agency’s mission, sources tell Bloomberg Law.

“Director Harris and Mr. Leen were seeking insights and experience from the attendees with the stated goal of making the OFCCP more effective and efficient,” Silberman said.

Other stakeholders speaking to Bloomberg Law repeated similar sentiments. Harris and Leen took a step back from regulatory minutiae to talk big picture concepts and themes, which one source who asked not to be named found “refreshing.”

Leen was floated as a potential OFCCP director before the Trump administration settled on Harris. If his engagement at the meetings is anything to go by, Leen will be a major OFCCP player alongside Harris going forward.

Apprenticeships Floated for Diversity Goals

Candee Chambers, executive director of DirectEmployers in Indianapolis, told Bloomberg Law that “even though the unemployment rate is low, there are still over 6 million jobs available and the US is currently facing a skills gap that will not allow for those jobs to be filled.” Chambers attended one of the listening sessions with other membership association representatives.

“You can increase diversity and build opportunities through appropriate education and training for females, minorities, veterans, and individuals with disabilities, helping them gain the skills they need to be qualified for higher-level positions while also providing a pipeline for companies not currently working at capacity,” Chambers said.

There still exists a question of how apprenticeships and workforce development programs fit with the OFCCP’s central mission of evaluating federal contractors and enforcing compliance with federal equal opportunity laws. The potential mismatch didn’t appear to bother employer-side sources speaking with Bloomberg Law, however. The office needs a breath of fresh air and re-prioritization, and employers consider the positive dialogue a satisfying step forward into the new year, they said.

Steering Into a Controlled Spin?

New leadership will, with any luck, guide the OFCCP through the rapids it finds itself in. The office last year nearly found itself merged with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And concerns still linger over agency transparency and efficiency, especially after staff were offered buyouts to shrink the agency.

Director Harris will likely be managing these issues amid a significant budget cut. The exact number won’t be known until Congress finalizes a budget, but the White House had proposed funding the OFCCP at $88 million—a $17 million decrease from its FY 2017 funding of $105 million.

The office plans to establish two skilled regional centers and staff them with specially trained personnel to carry out its compliance evaluations, according to its FY 2018 Congressional Budget Justification. That document was published in 2017 when the OFCCP lacked a politically appointed director. The skilled regional centers are intended to increase case evaluation quality, timeliness, and efficient use of limited resources while reducing the need for the “network” of district and field offices that currently audit federal contractor facilities.

Completing the Federal Contractor Compliance Manual and finalizing the compliance officer training program are two other OFCCP priorities. The FY 2018 Budget Justification indicates that the office is moving toward a centralized model of compliance enforcement and away from the disparate regional network it currently manages. With a new director at the wheel, these plans can pick up steam or go off on a new direction entirely.

We’ll have to wait and see.

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