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  ·   By Katherine Mangan, The Chronicle of Higher Education   ·  Link to Article

Trump Signs Order to Ease Federal Restrictions on Apprenticeships

President Trump on Thursday signed an executive order removing federal restrictions that he says have prevented industries from expanding apprenticeship programs. The move, he has said, will allow the nation to expand the number of "earn while you learn" opportunities to up to five million people over the next five years.

The nation now has more than 600,000 apprenticeships, which make up less than 1 percent of all jobs. Enlarging the pool is an idea with bipartisan support.

Apprentices gather skills on the job while their employers pay for related courses and degrees at a nearby college. They are paid for their work, but at a lower rate to reflect that they are still in training.

The idea is popular in Europe but has been slow to catch on in the United States, partly because businesses balk at the cost and some students feel that career training carries a second-class stigma.

 

The executive order would cost $200 million, to be funded out of existing U.S. Labor Department money. It should help fill many of the nearly six million jobs that currently are open, including 350,000 in manufacturing, Mr. Trump said.

 

"We’re going to put students into great jobs without the crippling debt of traditional four-year degrees," the president said during a televised news conference, where he was flanked by top government officials, several governors who support his idea, and apprentices.

The new apprenticeships, which will include training in occupations like financial services and health care, as well as more-traditional fields like manufacturing, will not have to be certified by the Labor Department, as is encouraged now. Instead, they could be overseen by third parties like companies, unions, and industry groups. Apprenticeships that are already certified by the Labor Department would not change.

Critics immediately questioned whether the quality of such programs would suffer without more accountability.

Chris Lu, who served as a deputy secretary of labor under President Barack Obama, tweeted that the executive order "will remove gov’t oversight of apprenticeship standards, which will reduce quality."

He added a reference to the president’s previous involvement in education:

The executive order addressed that concern by calling for "guidelines or requirements that third parties should or must follow to ensure that apprenticeship programs they recognize meet quality standards."

The move to deregulate apprenticeships comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s decision to delay and renegotiate two key consumer-protection regulations of the Obama era aimed at preventing abuses by for-profit colleges: the gainful-employment and borrower "defense to repayment" rules.

"We have regulations on top of regulations, and in history no one has gotten rid of as many regulations as the Trump administration," the president said during Thursday’s announcement.

"Many colleges and universities fail to help students graduate with the skills necessary to secure high‑paying jobs in today’s work force," the order states. "Far too many individuals today find themselves with crushing student debt and no direct connection to jobs."

Federally funded job-training programs are also ineffective, the order says, and those that don’t work should be reformed or eliminated.

"Apprenticeships provide paid, relevant workplace experiences and opportunities to develop skills that employers value," it says. "Additionally, they provide affordable paths to good jobs and, ultimately, careers."

Concerns About Rigor

Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization that helps promote skills training and job opportunities for low-income people, supports apprenticeship programs that have the Labor Department’s stamp of approval, says the group’s president, Maria K. Flynn.

But, she added, "We want to be sure that high-quality standards and rigor continue."

She also said she was troubled by the president’s proposed cuts in other areas that some apprentices rely on.

"Apprenticeships are an important tool in the tool box, but they’re not the only one," Ms. Flynn said. "There needs to be a robust public work-force system that includes basic skills training," as well as access to child care and transportation help for people returning to work.

Despite the president’s focus on the importance of job training and putting people back to work, he has proposed steep cuts in federal work-force programs, including the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA, a collection of programs that help job seekers find work, education, and training.

Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director of the National Skills Coalition, is also concerned about proposed cuts in adult-education programs that provide the basic skills many workers need to qualify for apprenticeship programs. Many of today’s programs require relatively strong mathematics and literacy skills.

"If you take away such supports, there’s no way we’re going to reach his goal" of five million apprentices, Mr. Kaleba said.

The administration is also reportedly considering ways that students could use federal money for the new apprenticeship programs.

Anthony P. Carnevale, a professor and director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, played down the impact of the president’s announcement, saying that only about half of existing apprenticeships are registered with the federal government. Those that are registered must offer at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job training, as well as 144 hours of classroom instruction, he said.

He said that he had been pushing for decades to get such training opportunities extended into high schools, the way they are in countries like Germany and Switzerland, but that his efforts had been roundly defeated by those concerned that job-skills programs limit certain students’ options.

Poor and minority students would be the ones steered into career-focused education programs, critics say, while more-affluent students would continue to be encouraged to attend four-year colleges.

While such fears are still deeply entrenched, says Ms. Flynn, of Jobs for the Future, "those mind-sets are starting to change now that parents are aware of the high-quality career-education options available."

Thursday’s executive order calls on the secretary of education to support efforts by community and four-year colleges to expand apprenticeships.

The American Association of Community Colleges welcomes the additional investment, said David S. Baime, the group’s senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis.

"We’re very pleased that the administration is recognizing the role of our colleges and the importance of education paired with work-force opportunities for people," he said.

Leaders of the Business Roundtable also applauded the president’s efforts to expand apprenticeships, which it called "powerful tools to close the skills gap and meet our nation’s work-force needs."

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.

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