Apprenticeship Expansion Passes House Committee

Bill codifies standards for work-based learning model

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer October 8, 2020
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Young man working in factory

​The House Education and Labor Committee recently passed legislation reauthorizing the National Apprenticeship Act (NAA), which would invest billions of dollars in the work-based learning model, codify standards, and expand apprenticeship to new communities and industries.

The legislation authorizes $3.5 billion in new spending over the next five years toward registered apprenticeships managed by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the states.

Registered apprenticeships have, by regulation—but not codified in statute—established standards that meet national and state quality requirements.

The NAA has not been substantively updated since its passage more than 80 years ago, said Katie Spiker, director of government affairs at the National Skills Coalition, a workforce development advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

She said the new legislation is 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."

The bill's lead sponsor, Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., said, "We know the registered apprenticeship system is very successful, but it is just not reaching enough people looking for high-quality career pathways."

According to the DOL, 94 percent of apprentices who complete registered apprenticeships are employed upon completion, earning an average starting wage of above $70,000 annually. Yet, according to the most recent data, only 0.3 percent of the overall U.S. workforce has participated in apprenticeship.

"By streamlining standards, accountability and coordinating programs with high-school and higher-education institutions, along with a greater investment to increase access, [the NAA reauthorization] will benefit more workers, the taxpayers and our economy," Davis said.

Eric Seleznow, senior advisor at the Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning for JFF, a national nonprofit based in Boston, said the proposed investment in apprenticeship would also help employers starting up or expanding programs.

The National Apprenticeship Act of 2020 proposes to authorize funding for:

  • The expansion of registered apprenticeships, pre-apprenticeships and youth apprenticeships.
  • Supporting more apprenticeships in nontraditional apprenticeship occupations, such as health care and information technology.
  • Supporting more participation in apprenticeship from women, minorities, veterans and people who were formerly incarcerated.
  • Encouraging small and midsize employers to take advantage of the national apprenticeship system.

"The investment in pre-apprenticeship programs 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—a more equitable form of access than requiring workers to rely on their own professional and social networks."

The legislation would also:

  • Codify and streamline standards for registered apprenticeships, pre-apprenticeship and youth apprenticeship programs.
  • Codify and fund the DOL's Office of Apprenticeship to promote the national apprenticeship system; partner with industry, labor organizations, and education, training and credential providers; and improve data reporting about apprenticeship. "This office has historically had a relatively small budget to run a national system," said Seleznow, a former deputy assistant secretary for the DOL's Employment and Training Administration under President Barack Obama.
  • Codify and, for the first time, dedicate funding to state apprenticeship agencies.
  • Establish a national advisory committee on apprenticeships comprising stakeholders from business, labor and educational institutions. "[The committee] has until now existed at the whim of the secretary of labor, and the Trump administration got rid of it," Seleznow said.

Committee-approved amendments to the bill include:

  • Requiring DOL and state offices to provide technical assistance for distance learning.
  • Improving the complaints process for workers.
  • Ensuring labor unions are included in apprenticeship activities.

Opposition

Republican leaders protested the lack of funding for employer-led programs, such as President Donald Trump's newly created Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs).

The IRAP system was established this year to exist alongside the DOL-regulated system. The model is meant to encourage industries to participate in work-based learning programs by turning over recognition and oversight of the programs to third parties, such as businesses, trade groups, nonprofits and unions.

Critics of the IRAPs contend that replacing government oversight with industry-run accreditation could lead to fewer worker protections.

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

Republicans on the committee said they agreed with much of what's in the legislation, but the exclusion of programs that exist outside the DOL-regulated system is a sticking point.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said, "We do not agree that the traditional registered apprenticeship system that has existed since the Great Depression should be the only way for the federal government to support apprenticeships and that this system is the only model of work-based learning that can exist within the National Apprenticeship Act."

Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., said that instead of pursuing a "one-size-fits-all federal intervention," less government interference and more flexibility for employers will yield the most innovative results. "Employers know best what skills their employees require to excel in the workplace. Allowing employers to develop workforce development programs directly tailored to their unique industries, which give participants the skill sets which are exactly what the employers are looking for, requires flexibility. Limiting apprenticeships to registered programs will inhibit many industries from entering the apprenticeship space in the first place."

Smucker said opening apprenticeship channels will be the only way to scale up to the participation goals lawmakers seek. There are currently about 630,000 apprentices in registered programs, with goals of reaching participation in the millions.

"The registered system has been around for 100 years," Seleznow said. "It's a solid, proven system. The IRAPs are untested and not at the quality level of registered programs. We're concerned about the quality control and oversight of these programs."

On Oct. 1, the DOL announced Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Technologies as the first IRAP, overseen by the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, one of the first group of standards-recognition entities approved by the Trump administration.

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