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Congress Making Election-Year Push to Reboot Workforce Training (1)

March 3, 2020, 6:57 PMUpdated: March 3, 2020, 9:21 PM

Lawmakers in both parties are in early stage negotiations to reauthorize the main federal law governing apprenticeships and on-the-job training, starting with a House committee draft bill.

Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Education and Labor Committee want to reboot the National Apprenticeship Act to broaden federal job training programs to help workers adapt to a changing economy, several lawmakers told Bloomberg Law. The Committee released a discussion draft of the legislation in advance of a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

“Expanding high-quality registered apprenticeship opportunities is an important issue for workers and businesses across the country. Accordingly, Committee members are working on bipartisan reforms to the National Apprenticeship Act that will help Americans develop the skills they need to fill in-demand jobs,” Education and Labor Committee leaders Bobby Scott (D-Va.) Susan A. Davis (D-Calif.), Virginia Foxx (R.-N.C.), and Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) said in a joint statement announcing the hearing.

The renewed push to rethink the nation’s workforce development programs—an effort that includes discussions about reauthorizing two other laws—has bipartisan appeal. But debate over whether NAA reauthorization should include the White House’s plan to create an alternative, industry-run apprenticeship system looms over the talks.

“We have worked with members to modernize all apprenticeships, and the White House is monitoring these developments,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.

Democrats have a sense of urgency to renegotiate the NAA this year, in part, to shore up the Labor Department’s long-established registered apprenticeship system out of concern that it could be undermined by the Trump administration’s proposal to create an Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program. That concept would train workers in emerging industries by allowing companies, trade groups, and unions to oversee IRAP initiatives—which have yet to be launched—while the DOL would continue to run the existing registered apprenticeship system.

The current draft of the reauthorization bill does not include the IRAP model, Scott told Bloomberg Law.

Republicans have called for broader expansion and investment in apprenticeships and other workforce training programs across the country. It’s unclear, however, whether Republican members will scuttle talks over the NAA reauthorization if a final bill doesn’t include an industry-run system. Some GOP members are skeptical of the administration’s proposal, but Foxx, the House Education and Labor Committee’s ranking member, and others have provided vocal support.

The panel on Tuesday it released a fact sheet that mentioned an effort to gather industry leaders and various other interested parties “to establish national frameworks for industry-recognized apprenticeable occupations.”

The fact sheet outlined a plan to increase access to registered apprenticeships, including by “streamlining standards” and by expanding “the successful RA model to youth apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs.” The committee estimated the bill would create more than 1 million apprenticeship opportunities over the next five years.

An Election-Year Boost?

Lawmakers may run into opposition from certain business groups if industry-run job training programs are not included in the reauthorization, and they could have trouble getting the White house to sign off. Unions view adding IRAPs to the NAA as a non-starter.

Offices for lawmakers involved in drafting the NAA reauthorization bill declined to comment on how the industry-run proposal has featured in talks to date. The Senate is looking to take up reauthorization as well, but is likely to let the House go first, according to a senior Senate aide.

In recent years, elections have been a boon for efforts to pass workforce and education bills. Lawmakers have sought to showcase to voters that they are making progress on issues their constituents support, said Kermit Kaleba, the managing director of policy at the National Skills Coalition, which promotes workforce education programs.

“People say nothing gets done in Washington during an election year, but in our experience in the workforce and education space, that’s not really true,” said Kaleba, whose group represents workforce education interests in business, labor, community colleges, and the public sector.

Congress passed a new version of the Perkins Act, a career and technical education law, in July 2018, ahead of fall elections. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Higher Education Act also were passed in election years, 2014 and 2008, respectively.

IRAP Funding Questions

The Labor Department is in the process of finalizing a rule to implement the IRAP model, which would function separately from the registered apprenticeship system.

“Expanding apprenticeship opportunities is an important means of closing the skills gap and strengthening the American workforce,” the DOL said in response to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment on NAA reauthorization. The DOL “will continue to provide members of Congress with information and technical assistance to members when requested.”

The administration says IRAPs would supplement the traditional registered apprenticeship system and cut down on red tape. Construction unions, however, see the registered system as integral to their ability to create well-paying union jobs and grow membership.

Congress has yet to authorize money for Trump’s alternative model amid mounting concerns over a million-dollar funding misstep. Some lawmakers, including Scott, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, say the IRAP system’s benefits are unproven and lack the wage and safety standards of the registered system.

Scott said the question of whether lawmakers “continue with the tried-and-true registered apprenticeship programs or go to IRAPs” poses a “wrinkle” in negotiations over NAA reauthorization.

Groups like the non-union construction group Associated Builders and Contractors are pressing Congress to allow room for an industry-run and market-driven apprenticeship system within NAA, said Greg Sizemore, ABC’s vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development.

Tight Deadlines

Congress also is looking to reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and Trade Adjustment Assistance programs ahead of statutory deadlines.

WIOA, signed into law in July 2014, replaced the previous Workforce Investment Act of 1998 and covers a sprawling system of state and federal programs for job search, training, and educational assistance. The House labor committee is expected to extend the law before it expires this year, with few changes, according to a staffer for the New Democrat Coalition, the party’s centrist wing.

The TAA system supports eligible workers who lose jobs due to foreign trade by providing relocation allowances and income support. The Trade Adjustment Assistance Reauthorization Act of 2015 runs through June 30, 2021. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is leading efforts to develop a TAA reauthorization bill and plans to unveil it later this year, her staff told Bloomberg Law.

Timing is an issue. The summer recess, national nominating conventions, and the fall elections will take up needed chunks of time out of the year, Scott told Bloomberg Law.

The NAA doesn’t have a deadline for reauthorization, but competing priorities may force Congress to pick and choose, Kaleba said. “It’s hard to imagine that Congress will get to all of them; there’s only so much bandwidth at the committee level,” Kaleba said.

(Updated to include an additional comment from Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jdiaz@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com

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