How to Improve Apprenticeships? House Committee Looks for Answers

By Kathy Gurchiek Jul 28, 2017
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Which internship programs are better—those registered with the federal government or a state or ones that are industry- or employer-led? Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are comparing the value of these apprenticeship programs and considering whether changes would improve workforce development.

Under the federal Registered Apprenticeship system, programs are registered with the Department of Labor (DOL) or with a state office of apprenticeship that meets certain standards. 

The federal government has certified apprenticeship programs for more than 75 years, according to the DOL. There are more than 533,000 apprenticeships available for more than 1,000 occupations throughout the U.S. 

Industry- or employer-led programs may be competency-based but aren't registered with the DOL.

At a hearing Wednesday before the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development, Stacey J. Hughes, HR unit manager at Logan Aluminum in Russellville, Ky., extolled the virtues of industry/employer-led apprenticeship programs. She serves as the state chairman for the Kentucky Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME). KY FAME is made up of regional manufacturers working with educational institutions to create a pipeline of highly skilled workers in manufacturing. There are similar programs in Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

Hughes, a Society for Human Resource Management member, was one of four people appearing before the subcommittee.  

Another witness, Rob Hogan, is vice president of manufacturing and material distribution at Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) in Virginia—a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries—and an alumnus of The Apprentice School in Newport News.

Its 19 shipbuilding apprenticeships and eight advanced apprenticeships are registered through the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, he told committee members. The school partners with state and local officials and educational institutions and is involved with workforce investment boards.

Although Hogan said he didn't think the DOL program was "burdensome or complicated," Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-N.Y., noted that the committee sees room for improvement in the nation's registered apprenticeship system.

"[We are] looking for a better way to build on the successful efforts businesses have found to grow their own apprenticeship programs outside of the registered apprenticeship [system]" Guthrie said.

The DOL has 26 requirements for designing registered programs, he noted, which some people consider too unwieldy to respond to rapidly changing workforce skills needs. He pointed out that less than half of earn-and-learn programs choose to register their programs with the DOL

"In 2016, only 206,000 people became apprentices through the registered apprenticeship program," Guthrie said.

Hughes asked the subcommittee to introduce legislation to promote programs such as KY FAME. In that program employers work with community colleges to create career pathways in manufacturing. Students work 24 hours a week for a local employer, which pays them, and attend community college for two eight-hour days a week.

Within five semesters, they earn a two-year associate's degree—and certification as an advanced manufacturing technician—and gain two years of work experience. The sponsoring employer pays the student's school expenses.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Using Government and Other Resources for Employment and Training Programs]

In June, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to expand apprenticeships and vocational training. The order included a directive that "federally funded education and workforce development programs that do not work must be improved or eliminated so that taxpayer dollars can be channeled to more effective uses."

Michael Bennett, vice president of Cianbro Companies—a 100 percent employee-owned company in Pittsfield, Maine, that provides construction and construction services—spoke on behalf of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). He said both the federal apprenticeship system and industry/employer-led apprenticeships have value.

ABC provides apprenticeship programs that are registered with the DOL as well as nonregistered, industry-recognized programs.

His company uses DOL-registered apprenticeship programs, he said, but "we feel there are some impediments to using the [Registered Apprenticeship] system, and we see room for improvement."

He pointed to an oil refinery that his company recently upgraded—the largest upgrade of its kind in decades in the U.S., he said—that required 250 pipe welders. Under the registered apprenticeship system, that would require 144 hours of classroom time and a minimum of 2,000 work hours, Bennett said. His company developed the welders it needed within one week through its own program.

"The construction industry has not been built on registered apprenticeships alone. Many organizations are providing workforce development opportunities for their teams that are outside that registered apprenticeship model," Bennett stated.

"It's not that the [registered system] is broken … but there is more than one way to develop skilled professionals in this country," he told committee members.

However, referring to the executive order directive to improve—or eliminate—federally funded education and workforce development programs that don't work, Bennett said it is "very premature to exclude anything right now." He urged committee members to "look at what is working and [see] how we can enhance those models."

The committee will continue to explore innovative earn-and-learn opportunities as the private sector seeks solutions to the skills gap. 

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