Face of Trump’s Job Training Agenda Marred by Vacancies, Confusion

Feb. 7, 2019, 10:50 AM

The federal office tasked with carrying out the Trump administration’s expansion of job training and apprenticeship programs is struggling in the face of staff and leadership vacancies, sources familiar with Labor Department operations told Bloomberg Law.

The Employment and Training Administration, a DOL subagency with a budget of more than $9 billion, has been without a confirmed director for two years. Trump’s pick to lead it, John Pallasch, is still awaiting confirmation in front of the Senate after first being nominated in April 2018.

The ETA is responsible for monitoring nationwide apprenticeship programs and for issuing various work visa programs—both major policy targets for Trump and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. The absence of steady hands to guide policy and staff on a daily basis, however, may be putting these efforts at risk, sources said. It’s not just Pallasch’s vacancy that’s causing concern. Staffers across the ETA are getting moved around causing at the very least confusion on who is in charge of what, and at the most a loss of experienced staff.

Without staff in place, initiatives such as rolling out the long-talked about Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Program (IRAP) and processing worker visa applications have hit some bumps along the way.

The DOL didn’t comment for this story or provide Bloomberg Law with a full updated leadership list for the ETA.

The ETA’s responsibilities have nationwide implications, Byron Zuidema, who served as the temporary assistant secretary of the subagency at the start of the Trump administration, said.

“It’s important to make sure the key positions are filled and the administration has the leadership in place” especially when launching major new initiatives, he said. Zuidema, now retired, worked in the agency’s Chicago office for more than 15 years before taking over the assistant secretary position temporarily.

Who’s Where?

The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service report that 43 percent of leadership positions in the DOL are filled. Career and political appointees in the ETA have moved around from one position or another for two years and that’s caused frustrating delays to everyday operations, sources told Bloomberg Law.

The ETA is being led temporarily by Acting Assistant Secretary Molly Conway, a political staffer who also plays double duty as Acosta’s deputy chief of staff. Rosemary Lahasky and Zuidema have also filled the role for short stretches since President Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017.

Lahasky, who was brought into the department in the early days of the administration as a senior policy adviser for the ETA, is now at the White House working for assistant to the president Ivanka Trump—the president’s daughter—with the National Council for the American Worker. She’s still listed as deputy assistant secretary to the ETA.

The latest changes in ETA have Deputy Assistant Secretary Nancy Rooney, a career staffer previously in the Office of the Solicitor, overseeing ETA’s various offices. Thomas Dowd, another career staffer who also serves as a deputy assistant secretary, recently took over as acting administrator for the Office of Foreign Labor Certification, according to a DOL spokeswoman who only confirmed his status at the agency. Dowd worked in the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs as interim director and deputy director at the start of Trump’s administration. Rooney was previously with the Office of the Solicitor.

There are traditionally at least three senior policy advisers with the ETA. The previous ETA advisers from the start of the administration: Lahasky, Ondray Harris, and Diane Jones have departed. Laurie Rowe and Shawn Packer list ETA special assistant roles on their LinkedIn page. Packer also served as an adviser to the solicitor’s office on foreign labor certification issues, according to his LinkedIn profile.

The career-level ETA positions that have remained empty for some time, have put a strain on staff who are already playing multiple roles. It’s unclear whether the slowdown in hiring is a conscious decision by the secretary’s office, the result of finding inadequate applicants, or the product of low unemployment.

IRAP, ETA Problems

Creating IRAP has been a major focus for Acosta since he took over the department in 2017. He’s also focused on changing visa programs for seasonal and high-skilled workers and cracking down on the employers that abuse them.

IRAP will serve as the alternative system to the Registered Apprenticeship Program. It tasks designated third-party certifiers with approving a sponsor’s apprenticeship program. Any organization or business can create an industry-focused apprenticeship program. The department has targeted an IRAP rollout in early 2019, but it hasn’t announced any approved program certifiers, which is likely the next step.

What has so far been released on IRAP has received apprehensive and confused responses from unions, business groups, and state apprenticeship agencies.

Rolling out this program takes all hands on deck, Mason Bishop, the ETA’s No. 2 official for six years during the George W. Bush administration, said. Bishop was in the running to lead the ETA in 2017 before being dropped last minute.

“Just from a leadership position it’s nearly impossible to do any major reforms or policy initiatives if you don’t have leadership or personnel to carry this out. It would be interesting to see how that rolls out,” he said of IRAP.

The seasonal worker visa application process experienced some bumps early in the new year.

The DOL’s electronic filing system for the visas, iCERT, went down temporarily Jan. 1, leaving employers unable to start the process for obtaining foreign labor for the spring season. The agency pointed to massive demand as the reason for the crash.

A source with prior experience at the ETA said the Labor Department’s new policy on timing the receipt of these forms down to the millisecond was the reason for the rush in applicants. This only served to create a rush to file with thousands of employers trying to file their H-2B visas at the same time. H-2B visas are popular in seasonal industries such as landscaping, amusement, forestry, and hospitality.

The community reliant on H-2B visas warned the DOL that this time stamp policy would create such a rush at the risk of the computer program, this source said. Those warnings fell on deaf ears.

The result was a “total management failure,” this person said.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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