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By Ben Penn
The Employment and Training Administration is rarely showered with national publicity, but the agency will spend 2018 implementing the White House’s top priority for the Labor Department.
The ETA is tasked with carrying out the president’s mandate to streamline and expand the nation’s apprenticeship system. Although President Donald Trump hasn’t announced a nominee to serve as the ETA’s top official, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta has seized the leadership torch on apprenticeship in public remarks and by awarding new grants.
Expect Acosta to continue to push to improve the skills of young and displaced workers to meet industry demands as the centerpiece of his policy agenda.
“No question about it—Acosta certainly feels that he’s got a horse that he can ride on apprenticeship for a long time,” Seth Harris, an acting and deputy labor secretary during the Obama administration, told Bloomberg Law.
In the meantime, absent Senate-confirmed leadership, workforce stakeholders say some ETA business has stalled in recent months. Those stakeholders are not sure which agency functions besides apprenticeship can get addressed in the coming year.
“Without a political assistant secretary, it is hard to really drive new vision and strategy for that agency,” Maria Flynn, a senior career official at the ETA from 1991 to 2007, told Bloomberg Law.
“I definitely have seen a slowdown in new funding opportunity coming out. I haven’t seen a lot of new policy advisories,” added Flynn, who still works with the ETA as president of Jobs for the Future. “It’s been largely quiet, with the exception of what we’ve seen around apprenticeship.”
Trump’s June mandate, in the form of an executive order, called on the DOL to improve industry flexibility and expand earn-as-you-learn job training opportunities. Specifically, the ETA is working to complete a proposed rule in 2018 that would reduce state and national registration barriers and promote the ability of third parties, such as employers, unions, and trade groups, to develop their own apprenticeship guidelines. The DOL has slated the proposal for release in January.
Apprenticeship only accounts for a small share of the ETA’s overall budget, which includes billions in grants to other job training programs that haven’t received nearly the same spotlight.
Unlike other DOL subagencies with nominees for assistant secretary or administrator working their way through the Senate, the ETA process suffered a setback a few months ago when the White House pulled Acosta’s initial choice to head the job training agency due to an unknown issue flagged in his background check, Bloomberg Law reported in October. That choice, Mason Bishop, was the only person on Acosta’s list for the position, sources told Bloomberg Law at that time.
The administration may have had to start from square one on a replacement search, and the Senate has been slow to schedule confirmation votes, meaning a new ETA leader may not be installed until well into 2018. More recently, ETA stakeholders told Bloomberg Law they have yet to hear of a new contender surfacing.
Bishop continues to track the agency’s business as a workforce training consultant. He told Bloomberg Law that the lack of an assistant secretary plus the recent retirement of acting ETA head Byron Zuidema indicates “it’s going to take them quite a bit of time to really figure out what the options are and what the agenda should be.”
Bishop also based that prediction on his six years as the ETA’s No. 2 official in the George W. Bush administration, an era when his team didn’t launch most of its biggest initiatives until Bush’s second term.
The job training agency’s current top-ranked official is an Acosta appointee: Rosemary Lahasky, the ETA’s deputy assistant secretary. She has respect on both sides of the aisle from her time as a GOP Capitol Hill staffer involved in brokering the passage of a 2014 bill—the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act—with overwhelming bipartisan support. The law funds 33 job training programs across the country for adults, youth, and dislocated workers.
In November, the department added two new policy advisers who will be aiding the apprenticeship rollout at the ETA.
As the apprenticeship planning moves forward, the ETA’s heavier lift in 2018 may actually be addressing operational challenges tied to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
WIOA has presented complications for three straight years, as states continue to complain they lack flexibility and local job training centers have struggled to connect with community colleges. Coordinating with the Department of Education remains a priority.
Concerns among states and workforce boards earlier this year that the Trump budget proposal called for a 40 percent reduction in WIOA spending have now dissipated, as those deep reductions have been nonstarters for Capitol Hill purse-string holders from both parties.
“The drastic cuts don’t seem to be on the table, which is good,” Flynn said. “I think we need to be looking more closely at how the system is working, getting more information around how effective the boards are, how effective the dollars are working.”
The ETA’s fix will be a test of how bold it wants to go, Bishop said. “My recommendation would be to reopen and re-regulate WIOA,” he added.
The ETA could also take on a larger share of the secretary’s big-ticket items if the White House is able to advance and pass an infrastructure package next year. Legislation that rebuilds the nation’s airports and roads would be expected to create thousands of jobs and require significant skills training in the process.
The Trump administration’s rollout is delayed in this area, but it is being queued up as a primary policy focus for 2018. Whether the White House can get an infrastructure bill passed in Congress remains to be seen.
The ETA’s role in an infrastructure push is still mostly theoretical. Legislation may steer funding to the Department of Transportation, while opening up the possibility for DOT partnerships with the ETA.
“If an infrastructure bill passed, there’s a lot of real opportunity for those two agencies to work together to simultaneously train people for those projects that DOT is funding in the states,” Bishop said.
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