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Labor secretary says White House is committed to apprenticeships
U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta addresses a Business Roundtable discussion on June 7, 2017. Photo by U.S. Department of Labor.
President Donald Trump's proposed 36 percent reduction in funding to workforce training and education programs is a "hard choice" but is necessary to prioritize the programs that work best, according to Department of Labor (DOL) Secretary Alexander Acosta, who testified June 7 before a congressional panel.
Acosta's appearance before a House appropriations subcommittee was his first since his March confirmation hearing. The secretary faced repeated questions about the department's aim to "do more with less," especially in contrast to the administration's agenda of getting more of America's unemployed back to work.
"We are going to focus the Department of Labor on its core mission by making smart investments in programs that work," Acosta said before the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee. "The budget makes hard but responsible choices. It eliminates programs that are less effective or less efficient and dedicates taxpayer dollars to programs that we know are successful."
The proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 calls for trimming DOL spending by $2.4 billion, or nearly 20 percent, including a $1.3 billion cut in Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) grants for adult, youth and dislocated worker training programs; a 25 percent cut to the Employment and Training Administration, which oversees federal workforce development programs; and the closure of underperforming Job Corps centers.
The budget proposal estimated it would save $237.5 million by closing Job Corps centers "that do a poor job of educating and preparing disadvantaged youth for jobs or where it does not make economic sense to keep the center open," and another $433.5 million through the elimination of the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), which is supposed to train older adults for part-time work in community service organizations.
Acosta said that the department intends to prepare the U.S. workforce for a rapidly changing economy and close the national skills gap by prioritizing the programs that have been proven to work. To that end, the budget calls for maintaining a nearly $90 million investment in apprenticeships.
It's important to note that the president's budget request is an opening proposal that needs congressional approval and that the proposed budget at this stage typically does not reflect what Congress ultimately appropriates.
Significant Support for Apprenticeships
Acosta cited new Bureau of Labor Statistics data that showed the number of U.S. job openings reached 6 million in April, the highest level recorded since 2000, while the unemployment rate is at a 16-year low. Despite the record job openings, the recent steady growth in hiring has slowed. "Our economy has grown rapidly and left many Americans behind," he said. "We can get most Americans back to work if we can match those who are looking for work with available jobs. [But] there is a mismatch between the needs of employers and the skills of job seekers. We need to make better efforts to align job training with the skills the market demands."
Acosta said apprenticeships that prepare workers for jobs through participation in paid, employer-sponsored, on-the-job training and classroom instruction will be a key solution to this vexing issue. "High-quality apprenticeships enable employers to be involved in the training of their future workforces so they can be sure new hires possess the skills needed to do the job," he said. He added that in addition to offering wages and targeted skills training, apprenticeships often provide nationally recognized certificates of completion and the opportunity to earn college credit.
Democrats Question the Skills Gap Disconnect
The subcommittee members showed bipartisan support for apprenticeships, but the budget's proposal to eliminate or reduce funding for programs which the DOL said "are duplicative, unnecessary, unproven or ineffective," drew concerned queries from Democrats.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., called the budget request a "disaster for workers," and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., said it would "shatter WIOA."
DeLauro countered the DOL's assessment of the SCSEP, saying that it exceeded the DOL's own performance targets. She and others on the subcommittee asked Acosta how the department can make substantial cuts to workforce development programs and get people back to work. "I find it perplexing that as you advocate for closing the skills gap, your budget proposes slashing $2.3 billion from job training," she said. "You can't cut a program and say that you're for the program."
Acosta responded that evidence and data-based analyses would be used to assess each program's effectiveness. For example, Job Corps centers that can show they helped people get jobs would be given preference. "Some centers are quite effective," he said. "Some are much less so." He said that the department would apply formulas to measure Job Corps effectiveness, taking into account the costs to run individual centers and factoring in the difficulties in hard-to-serve communities.
"There are 37 different job training programs at DOL, and that doesn't include the job education programs" at other agencies, he said. "We all want to provide job training. Everyone wants to see the unemployment rate remain low and jobs get filled. But is that best done with 50 or more programs across the government or through a handful of programs that are proven successful?"
Acosta also said that funding responsibility for workforce grants would be shifted to states, localities and employers, an idea that was met with skepticism from the Democrats on the panel. "States don't have the money, and we're cutting further back on what they can do," DeLauro said. "No way can they take up the slack on these programs."
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