Lawmakers Seek to Overhaul National Apprenticeship Law

President Trump’s apprenticeship plans present a snag to bipartisan proposal

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer April 16, 2020
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​The House Committee on Education and Labor took the first step toward modernizing the nation's apprenticeship system with the release of draft legislation establishing standards for apprenticeship programs nationwide, expanding registered apprenticeships and streamlining the process for employers.

The draft legislation to reauthorize the National Apprenticeship Act (NAA) for the first time since its enactment in 1937 would invest more than $1 billion in grants by fiscal year (FY) 2025 to expand on-the-job training, codify standards and guidelines for apprenticeship, and make it easier for employers to participate.

Registered apprenticeships are overseen by the Department of Labor (DOL) and have established standards by regulation—but not codified in statute—that meet national and state quality requirements.

"Registered apprenticeships are unquestionably the nation's most successful federally funded workforce development initiative," said Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif. "According to the DOL, 94 percent of people who complete registered apprenticeships are employed upon completion, earning an average starting wage of above $70,000 annually. Registered apprenticeships are also important to our nation's employers. By offering successful apprenticeship opportunities, employers build a talent pipeline of dedicated workers who are more likely to remain at their jobs for long periods of time."

The NAA—about six paragraphs of instruction—has never been substantively updated, said Katie Spiker, director of government affairs at the National Skills Coalition, a workforce development advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

She said that the new legislation "would codify both existing regulations and practical components of how apprenticeship has evolved over the past 80 years," and said it's an important first step "toward both modernizing apprenticeship and providing Congress the opportunity to put scaffolding around how the DOL spends its increasing appropriations for apprenticeship."

Jace Noteboom, talent director at IBM Systems, said that one of the biggest barriers to apprenticeship adoption among employers, especially those with multistate locations, is the complicated administration of the programs.

IBM has hired over 500 apprentices for a variety of technology roles since 2017 and has worked with the DOL to create 25 new IT apprenticeship programs.  

"For larger companies seeking to be involved with apprenticeship, the dual federal-state model provides unneeded complexity around where and how to register a program and provides often- duplicative work if registration is needed in multiple places," she said. "Additionally, the process for approvals of standards can become a long process taking upwards of 90 days, reporting needs can become overwhelming and are often not relevant to program requirements, and there is a general lack of understanding of competency-based apprenticeships by state agencies."

National Apprenticeship Act of 2020

The reauthorized NAA would increase access to registered apprenticeships through the creation or expansion of pre-apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships and apprenticeship programs in nontraditional occupations and populations, said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va. "Based on committee estimates, this bill will create over 1 million apprenticeship opportunities over the next five years," he said.

Pre-apprenticeship programs are a set of services designed to prepare people to succeed as a registered apprentice. Some programs serve a specific population, such as veterans, people with barriers to employment or youth.

"We're pleased to see that the legislation would invest in pre-apprenticeship programs, which is particularly important for people of color and women who have been historically underrepresented in certain industries and apprenticeships," Spiker said. "Pre-apprenticeship programs create formal on-ramps for workers to employers who are looking to hire."

The proposal would codify:

  • Standards for registered apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship and youth apprenticeship programs, including requirements for apprenticeship agreements and program registration to ensure consistency in quality standards and worker protections.
  • The roles and responsibilities of the DOL's Office of Apprenticeship, including increasing promotion and awareness of programs; increasing diversity in apprenticeship occupations; establishing national frameworks for industry-recognized apprenticeship occupations; and improving the data infrastructure to improve reporting about apprenticeship programs.
  • The roles and responsibilities of the state apprenticeship agencies.
  • The connections between the DOL and the Department of Education to support the creation and expansion of youth apprenticeships, college networks and data-sharing agreements.

"Reauthorization should acknowledge the role of higher education in apprenticeships to encourage better alignment of apprenticeship and postsecondary attainment," said Morna Foy, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System, a consortium of 16 technical colleges statewide based in Madison. She said that there should be a separate funding program for states to help two-year colleges develop and deliver apprenticeship instruction.

Industry-Run Apprenticeships

President Donald Trump's plan to create an alternative, industry-run apprenticeship system is complicating the bipartisan efforts to reform the nation's apprenticeship law.

The DOL issued a final rule Mar. 11 establishing Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs) to exist alongside the current DOL-regulated system. The rule, which goes into effect May 11, is meant to encourage greater industry participation in expanding work-based learning programs and outlines the process by which third parties—companies, trade groups, nonprofits and unions—will evaluate and recognize IRAPs.

Critics of the IRAPs contend that by replacing government oversight with industry-run accreditation, the programs will lack the worker protections of the registered apprenticeship system.

The reauthorization draft bill does not include mention of the IRAP model, and House Democrats say they have no intentions to fund the new system because that would be taking money away from registered programs.

Congressional Democrats have suggested that their urgency to reauthorize the NAA is another way to block the IRAP initiative, and the exclusion of IRAPs could lead some Republicans to scuttle the ongoing negotiations.

"The Democrats' draft proposal to reauthorize the NAA was a product of bipartisan negotiations, but I've heard that the administration has urged Republicans to step away from the bill in part because it does not include provisions on IRAPs," Spiker said. "Without that bipartisan agreement in the House, it is unlikely to gain traction in the Senate."

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