Trump Order Weakens Apprenticeship System, Slashes Funding for Workforce Training

On June 15, 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) meant to “expand apprenticeships in America.” Under  the current system, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and state apprenticeship agencies register all apprenticeship programs. However this EO proposes to decentralize the registration of apprenticeships to enable third parties—including a variety of corporate, nonprofit, trade groups, or other entities—to independently register or recognize apprenticeships. The implementation of this EO is likely to expand apprenticeship programs while potentially damaging the integrity and reputation of the current system and diminishing the value of this important earn-while-you-learn program to workers seeking to gain greater skills and improve their economic opportunities.

The current federal-state apprenticeship system in the United States was established through the National Apprenticeship Act of 1937. The primary purpose of the Act was to “promote the furtherance of labor standards necessary to safeguard the welfare of apprentices.” DOL regulations set the framework for registered apprenticeships and require equal employment opportunity standards. President Trump’s EO does not include any guarantee that the new “industry-recognized” apprenticeships will uphold the current job quality and equal opportunity standards for the program. These standards include delineating the type and structure of the training, form of supervision, terms of employment, and health and safety requirements. The EO also does not mention any requirements—as currently codified—that apprentices receive wage increases as they achieve milestones, such as the development of skills and competencies or time spent in on-the-job training. Furthermore, the EO does not specify that graduates of this new program will receive a nationally recognized credential that is portable among employers within an industry, a hallmark of the current Registered Apprenticeship system.

In addition, the EO fails to require any equal opportunity, affirmative action, or racial/gender fair hiring practices in the new “industry-recognized apprenticeships.” These Equal Employment Opportunity requirements in the current system for registered apprenticeships ensure that underrepresented groups can access and benefit from these critical job-training opportunities. In the absence of strong quality assurance design and monitoring,  these new apprenticeships would allow federal funding to promote low-value training programs that are allowed to discriminate, provide few job protections, and offer little opportunity to advance from poverty-level wages.

Notably, the EO also directs federal agencies to make recommendations for eliminating workforce training under consideration in next year’s budget. Just as the proposed alternative to registered apprenticeship would weaken a proven workforce development strategy that enjoys bipartisan support, the Trump Administration continues to attack other key federal workforce development and job training investments. The president’s budget for Fiscal Year 2018 proposed cuts of almost 40 percent from job training programs provided through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA); proposed to reduce adult education by 16 percent ($96 million), even though two-thirds of adults with lower literacy and numeracy skills are already employed but face severe challenges in moving up at work due to their skill levels; and called for a 15 percent ($168 million) cut to Perkins career and technical education.

While the EO pays lip service to expanding access to and participation in apprenticeships among youth and students in secondary and postsecondary institutions, the administration’s budget would undermine these goals. The president’s budget proposes some of its deepest cuts for a program that provides crucial opportunities for youth to earn while they learn: the 20 percent dedicated WIOA Title I youth formula funding for work-based learning, which can include pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships. Furthermore, WIOA’s provisions for subsidized transitional jobs for individuals with barriers to employment—and its enhanced reimbursement of up to 75 percent of wages for on-the-job training—offer valuable incentives for employers to participate in earn-and-learn activities, including pre-apprenticeships. These policies also encourage relationships between employers and the public workforce development system, leading to job training programs that are informed by industry needs and better prepare youth and adults with the right competencies for job opportunities.

The EO also promotes the development of apprenticeship programs at colleges and universities. By decentralizing the registration of apprenticeships, the Trump Administration would create a system for these new programs that resembles the accreditation system used in postsecondary education, where the Department of Education approves accreditors, who then in turn approve specific programs and institutions. This system, which both political parties agree is badly in need of reform, has allowed fraud to flourish. As of October 2016, the Obama Administration had approved 16,000 borrower “defense to repayment claims” (made by former students who reported being defrauded by colleges), and 13,000 “closed school claims” (for students who attended institutions that abruptly closed), for a cost to the taxpayer of $350 million. This is in addition to countless settlements and judgments that states attorneys general have received from schools that were accredited under the current model, yet that had made false claims about their programs’ performance to prospective students and committed other crimes.

Creating a mirror image of this accreditation system for registering “industry-recognized” apprenticeship could lead to similar waste, fraud, and abuse, allowing for the creation of sub-optimal education and training experiences that disproportionately draw in low-income students and students of color. This again raises significant questions and concerns that the new registration process suggested in the EO will weaken existing job quality and equal employment opportunity rules—and create a two-tiered system that will further undermine the current Registered Apprenticeship system.

Our workforce training system already struggles with having too few resources to meet the existing demand. It is possible to have both well-funded job training programs and quality assurance. Unfortunately, through its FY18 budget proposal and this new EO, the Trump Administration has yet to provide American workers with either.