Trump administration advancing proposal to weaken apprenticeships

By Angela Hanks

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released a framework to establish a new class of apprenticeship programs known as Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs, or IRAPS. The framework, released in July, raises serious questions about the future and quality of apprenticeship under the Trump Administration. Comments on the IRAP certification process can be submitted through November 19.

Currently, Registered Apprenticeships—which pair paid on-the-job training with classroom instruction—are certified by DOL or an authorized state agency. These programs have been around for decades and provide high-quality, relevant training leading employment. People who complete apprenticeships earn median annual wages of $60,000. However, only a small share of workers historically participates in these programs, and the programs are plagued by significant wage and participation disparities by race and gender.

Recently, state and federal policymakers have made significant new investments to expand the Registered Apprenticeship model into new industries and reach underrepresented groups. Congress and both the Obama and Trump Administrations have invested more than $665 million to grow Registered Apprenticeship programs nationally and make them more equitable.

In June 2017, the Trump Administration issued an executive order to develop a parallel unregistered apprenticeship system. These programs, known as IRAPs, would be certified by to-be-determined third-party entities instead of DOL. They wouldn’t be subject to Registered Apprenticeship standards around wages, training structure and quality, and equal opportunity employment.

IRAPs seem to be a solution in search of a problem. While the existing apprenticeship model isn’t widely used, there is little evidence that program standards have prevented Registered Apprenticeships from flourishing. Moreover, the IRAP proposal appears to disregard congressional intent to “safeguard the welfare of apprentices.” The administration’s proposal may do just the opposite, undermining the recent growth of high-quality Registered Apprenticeship programs, and leading to a proliferation of low-quality programs with negative outcomes for apprentices.

The IRAP’s third-party certification system is likely to lead to an overly complicated web of standards, processes, and credentials that will be difficult for apprentices and employers to navigate. For example, certifiers would likely be permitted to develop their own performance metrics, definitions of “highly structured work experiences,” and their own credentials. By comparison, current regulations define these terms and all apprentices obtain the same nationally recognized and portable credentials upon completion.

IRAP also proposes to exempt apprentices from key labor protections, including increased wages over time, payment of prevailing wages, and equal opportunity employment to underrepresented groups. The department instead requires sponsors to ensure their outreach and recruitment extends to all “without regard to race, sex, ethnicity, or disability”—a notable shift from the existing rules prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, or other characteristics. Apprenticeship programs are already highly unequal by gender and race, and this provision would likely make that worse.

DOL’s framework is also prone to inherent conflicts of interest from the third-party certification process. DOL suggests that certifiers may provide the instruction to apprentices and develop their own online instruction modules. Both provisions raise questions about whether DOL will allow certification bodies to police programs they have devised and whether they can market instructional products to programs they oversee.

DOL dismissed a recommendation from its IRAP task force to pilot how the third-party certification model might function in practice before going to scale. DOL’s rationale for rejecting the pilot is that a “large skills gap” requires immediate response. Putting aside this questionable skills gap claim, it is unclear how rapidly expanding an untested model with minimal guardrails would significantly raise workers’ skills.

CLASP is concerned that rushing to implement a new untested system without justifying why it is necessary will undermine efforts to expand access to Registered Apprenticeship and will disproportionately harm low-income students and students of color who need stronger protections to increase their access to even more high-wage apprenticeships. 

The Department of Labor plans to propose IRAP regulations but is first accepting comments on the certification process through November 19. It is unclear why DOL is soliciting certification process comments before it issues the proposed regulation. CLASP strongly urges interested parties to submit comments here.