Employers are closer to being able to participate in industry-led, government-sanctioned apprenticeship programs separate from the federal and state registered apprenticeship system that many find cumbersome.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued a notice July 27 that outlines the process that will allow trade associations and other nongovernmental organizations to certify work-based learning programs.
Katie Spiker, federal policy analyst at the National Skills Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group advocating for investments in workforce development, pointed out that under current law, the DOL or a state agency registers apprenticeship programs, documenting that the structure of the program's on-the-job learning, classroom instruction, mentoring and safety components meet certain standards. The programs are subject to regulations describing the types of occupations for which apprenticeships can be used, the structure of training, the expertise apprentices need to earn and compliance with equal employment opportunity rules.
In 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that called for the establishment of an alternative system of industry-recognized apprenticeships that would not require direct approval by a government entity. "The proposed process is intended to make it easier for businesses to gain approval for new programs while also supporting the development of quality assurance standards in industries where apprenticeships are not well-utilized," Spiker said.
Last month the DOL announced $150 million in funds to support organizations to help businesses set up and run the new industry-recognized apprenticeship programs and another $1 million in funding to community-based organizations helping expand women's access to apprenticeships and training for jobs in manufacturing, mining and construction.
Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America, a Washington, D.C.-based public-policy think tank, gives the Trump administration credit for making apprenticeships available to new populations and industries. That "includes better integrating apprenticeships with higher education, building pathways for high school students to apprenticeships, building the apprenticeship research and evidence base, and calling out the value of competency versus time-based apprenticeship programs," she said.
But she is troubled by the new industry-sanctioned model.
"Third parties like industry associations already play a role in expanding apprenticeships, working as intermediaries across multiple employers to set up and run programs—and they should play an even larger one," she said. "But [the proposed model] seems to envision outsourcing the quality assurance of programs to these third-party groups as well, which is concerning." A report prepared by President Trump's Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansionacknowledges "the risks of inconsistent standards and conflicts of interest that such a structure could present," she said.
More-detailed draft regulations for the industry-recognized apprenticeship programs is expected this fall, Spiker said.
Employers Asked for Change
Participation in the DOL's registered apprenticeship programs has grown significantly in recent years—a 42 percent increase since 2013, according to the DOL. In fiscal year 2017, more than 190,000 individuals entered the apprenticeship system; over 533,000 apprentices currently participate in apprenticeship programs nationwide.
Most apprenticeships in the U.S. are in the construction industry, followed by manufacturing, utilities and transportation, Spiker said. Employers in industries like health care, retail, information technology and financial services have been using registered apprenticeships with more frequency in recent years, she added.
However, only 0.3 percent of the workforce has come up through the DOL system. One reason is a frustration some employers report with the DOL's regulatory process.
"The current registered apprenticeship model has a perception within industry as being complicated and heavily burdensome with paperwork and reporting," said Glenn Johnson, workforce development leader with BASF Corporation in Houston. "This has affected the quantity of actively registered apprenticeships in the U.S. Some organizations that need apprenticeships may not seek registration and thus are not eligible for funding assistance because they perceive an insufficient return on investment for what they must do to receive it."
The system pushes businesses into a "one-size-fits-all" box, said Montez King, the executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, based in Fairfax, Va.
King, who served on the Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion, said that the current system lacks flexibility. "There are specific ideas about who can be an apprentice— typically individuals entering from high school or a post-secondary institution," he said. "When they enter the program, they face time requirements and benchmarks based on hours spent in the classroom or on the shop floor instead of on their mastery of skills or performance."
King said his organization is working with defense and security firm Raytheon to develop a structured on-the-job training program that is flexible, competency-based and accommodating to the wave of workers in need of reskilling and upskilling in the current and future labor force, not just entry-level workers.
"Apprentices are not bound to a certain number of hours, but instead progress through the program by obtaining a specific skill set and performing those skills in a real manufacturing environment," he said.
Mike Holland, chief operating officer of Marek Companies, a specialty interior contractor based in Houston, said that most of the construction industry chooses to train their workforces outside of the DOL's apprenticeship system because of the bureaucratic burden associated with those programs.
Marek used to train workers through the DOL system, mainly to be able to bid on federal construction projects, which essentially require apprentices to be in government-registered programs. But after six years, the company decided to instead use its own paid, competency-based, in-house development program. "We found the DOL's hours requirements inflexible and somewhat arbitrary because the instruction is based on time in the classroom, not on the job site," he said. "And when DOL requires apprentices to sit in the classroom after they have already demonstrated their knowledge on the jobsite, it hinders their growth and prevents them from advancing onto the next skill."