Companies Get Freer Rein Over Apprenticeships With Trump Order

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By Ben Penn and Tyrone Richardson

President Donald Trump is giving businesses expanded authority to design their own apprenticeship programs in an executive order signed June 15.

The Labor Department’s current system of funding apprenticeships after they’ve met longstanding quality standards is “very prescriptive and very restrictive” and “really fails the American worker,” a senior White House official said on a call with reporters.

The executive order is intended to improve industry flexibility and scale up the earn-as-you-learn job training program by allowing companies to tailor the guidelines to their own workforce needs. The DOL would still give final approval but would take a faster, streamlined approach, under a new regulation directed by the EO.

White House officials discussed the new apprenticeship commitment with 18 corporate executives earlier this week, including CEOs of Amazon, CVS Health, Accenture, and Northrop Grumman.

The apprenticeship concept enjoys widespread bipartisan support, including from the Obama administration, as a workforce training lever. But the proper pathway to escalating employer participation to levels seen in Europe is subject to debate.

“Right now we do have a pretty complicated system; it’s uneven,” Robert Lerman, an Urban Institute fellow who researches apprenticeship, told Bloomberg BNA. “We’ve also loaded on various kinds of extra regulations—some of them vary by state—with regard to things like how many skilled mentor trainers do you need for every apprentice.”

“So I do welcome a streamlining of the approach to getting companies to adopt apprenticeship,” said Lerman, who spoke before text of the EO was released.

DOL Safeguards

Trump’s apprenticeship order garnered support from business groups hoping to advance job applicants’ skills without enduring the bureaucratic challenges of meeting federal and state-administered registration standards. But some Democrats and Obama administration DOL officials criticized the order for ceding too much control to companies without the traditional degree of government oversight.

“We do want to get more businesses involved but also make sure it’s a good program for workers—good jobs, good wages, high quality,” Eric Seleznow, who steered apprenticeship efforts at Barack Obama’s DOL, told Bloomberg BNA. “There are a lot of safeguards to registered apprenticeship to make sure that it’s high quality for industry and for workers.”

Seleznow, a senior adviser at Jobs for the Future, was previously deputy assistant secretary at the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration. He spoke before the EO was released.

Federal Dollars Attached

Along with the EO, the administration is dedicating $100 million in new funding to increase the number of apprenticeships. The White House is separately calling on Congress to look for additional financing, a senior Trump official said on the call.

“We’re empowering these companies, these unions, industry groups ... to go out and create new apprenticeships,” Trump said at a White House signing ceremony. “Apprenticeships place students into many jobs without the crippling debt of four-year college degrees.”

But Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate labor panel, reacted with concern for workers. Trump’s plan “would loosen standards that ensure businesses getting federal workforce funds actually deliver for workers,” Murray said in a statement.

New DOL Reg

The EO directs the secretary of labor to propose a regulation that promotes third parties’ ability to develop their own apprenticeship guidelines.

The DOL regulation must determine how third parties—which can include trade associations, companies, nonprofit organizations, and unions—should go about developing a quality apprenticeship program. The department would then be required to expedite the process to approve or disapprove these proposals.

The DOL for over 75 years has worked with state agency affiliates to register programs that meet quality training standards and lead to certificates of completion. While models vary, apprenticeships generally combine technical instruction with on-the-job learning, typically lasting four years. Trump’s EO retains the existing mechanism for DOL registration as well.

The calls to boost apprenticeship come after the White House proposed slashing the DOL’s budget by 20 percent. The majority of the cuts are aimed at the nation’s workforce training system.

Interest on Hill

Trump made his announcement the same day that apprenticeship advocates offered a House Workforce subcommittee a snapshot of how the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act has helped with expanding apprentice opportunities.

The act “has given states the flexibility and tools they need to foster strategic partnerships, invest resources into innovative methodologies, and educate their workforce,” said Michelle Paczynski, South Carolina’s deputy assistant executive director for workforce and economic development. “South Carolina has seized the opportunity to enhance business engagement, to educate and empower job seekers, and ultimately to provide businesses with skilled workers.”

The WIOA is a bipartisan job training bill signed into law in 2014.

The Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development took testimony as Democrats and Republicans remain divided on the White House’s proposed budget, which seeks a roughly 40 percent reduction in funds for the WIOA. The proposed budget would have to be approved by Congress.

Some Republicans questioned whether the same funding level is needed with today’s lowered unemployment rate compared with 2014 when the WIOA became law.

“Some members of this committee argue that we should fund WIOA at the same level we funded it historically with of course various cost of living increases,” said Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) “But the cost of living is down dramatically. Your service population is reduced, especially among the dislocated workers.” Appropriators should focus on meeting the needs of people and businesses, not just replicating what was spent the year before, he said.

Subcommittee Ranking Democrat Rep Susan Davis (Calif.) said she believeS the Trump administration’s proposed cuts would mean “the innovation that WIOA is fostering will be halted, stymieing these partnerships and relationships.”

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), a former Delaware labor secretary, said there might be a need to refocus funds.

“I would say that instead of less money, and I’m not going to say we need more in this environment, but I would say that when the unemployment rate is low it’s when you get to people who may be harder to employ,” she said. “Whether it’s prison-to-work or whether it’s welfare to work, it requires intensity.”

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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