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By Ben Penn
The Department of Labor will host a sitting president June 14 for the first time since 2008, but it’s unclear whether Donald Trump’s job-training message will be taken seriously by the DOL’s 16,000 employees.
The president is scheduled to join Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, along with industry and labor representatives, for an event to announce plans to expand apprenticeship opportunities. But with a backdrop of the White House’s recent budget proposal to slash DOL funding by 20 percent—mostly through cuts to workforce training programs—former officials and a DOL worker representative say the visit will likely be viewed with skepticism by many of the department’s workers.
“I think if he wants to be taken seriously on this” job training push, “he sort of has to” show up in person, Paige Shevlin, who was an adviser to President Barack Obama on workforce training, told Bloomberg BNA. “I think with the decimation of parts of the Department of Labor that are proposed in his budget, in order to get support behind the areas that he does want to focus on, he does need to go there,” she said.
Senior officials in the prior administration told Bloomberg BNA that Obama never visited the DOL’s Washington headquarters in part because of the security issues related to the building’s proximity to a major interstate. However, in public remarks and policy directives, Obama made apprenticeship expansion a piece of his middle-class agenda.
President George W. Bush delivered remarks at the DOL in February 2008, discussing the economic outlook amid the economic downturn.
Trump’s visit comes during what the White House is billing as “workforce development week.” By making the announcement live at the DOL, the president will send a positive message to the agency’s rank and file, one former GOP official at the department said.
“I think the symbolism is very important,” Mason Bishop, who was deputy assistant secretary at the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration when Bush visited the agency in 2008, told Bloomberg BNA. “I think it shows the federal Department of Labor workforce that the president is committed to improving these programs and committed to the work that they are doing.”
The White House is expected to announce an executive order intended to streamline the apprenticeship process by opening up more opportunities for industry-based certification.
Alexander Bastani, president of the union representing DOL employees in Washington, told Bloomberg BNA June 13 it was his understanding that the only DOL nonpolitical officials to be invited to Trump’s speech will be senior career executives.
“I personally wouldn’t want to go. I do think he should’ve reached out to the rank-and-file DOL employees,” said Bastani, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 12. “I understand it’s about a training initiative, so if nothing else, he should probably have at least 10 or 15 employees from the Employment and Training Administration who do that on a daily basis.”
A DOL spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment on the invitation list.
The department is urging civil servants not to report to work because of the tight security restrictions.
Representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the International Franchise Association, and the National Restaurant Association told Bloomberg BNA they were invited and will be attending the president’s speech. Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, will be present, an NABTU spokesman said.
However, a spokesman for AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told Bloomberg BNA he’s not aware of any invite for him. The AFL-CIO is a union umbrella group that’s been more critical of the Trump administration than its affiliate NABTU.
Trump’s proposed budget, which aims to shift the financing of job training from the federal government to state and local governments, could undermine the apprenticeship push.
The apprenticeship program is a “fundamentally different initiative” than the training programs that are proposed to be cut, a senior White House official said on a call for reporters June 9. Most of the budgets cuts are targeted at nonapprenticeship training programs that were authorized by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
But by reducing investment in other models, such as those that benefit at-risk youth, the Trump administration would still be hurting the pool of potential apprentice applicants, Eric Seleznow, deputy assistant secretary for employment and training for Obama’s DOL, told Bloomberg BNA.
“There are about 30 million Americans without high school equivalency or a high school diploma that lack basic skills, and cutting these programs will certainly impact those people with low skills who need these programs in order to meet the entry requirements of most apprenticeship programs,” said Seleznow, a senior adviser at Jobs for the Future.
The full details of the plan will be publicized June 14. The career employees tasked with carrying out the apprenticeship order may not be present for Trump’s speech, but many will still be tuning in on the live internet video feed.
“I think that he is going to have to do a lot to gain the trust of Department of Labor employees, and visiting is a start,” said Shevlin, the ex-Obama aide. “It’s really hard when you’re seeing major cuts to the programs you work on, and that could mean your job.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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