The Labor Department rolled out a final rule to implement the Trump administration’s new industry-focused apprenticeship system, a move likely to heighten debate on Capitol Hill and spur at least one legal challenge.
The rule effectively establishes the Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program, a centerpiece of President Donald Trump’s workplace policy agenda. It also bars building trades groups from participating in the new system and includes a clause to limit a potential lawsuit from the construction industry, consistent with an advance copy of the regulation that Bloomberg Law reported last week. The regulation will take effect May 11.
The IRAP initiative, which has yet to launch, is an effort to rapidly expand the Labor Department’s earn-as-you-learn job-training model by shifting oversight and credentialing authority to industry groups. Employers in booming sectors like health care and information technology will be given more control over identifying the skills and standards that best serve their industries, and the bureaucratic red tape that prevented some businesses from participating in government-run apprenticeships in the past will be minimized.
But the IRAP system’s long-term future is uncertain: Congress has yet to allot money specifically for the new model, and a group of mostly Democratic lawmakers has expressed concern that the industry-focused system doesn’t involve enough government oversight.
“Apprenticeships are widely recognized to be a highly effective job-training approach for American workers and for employers seeking the skilled workforce needed in today’s changing workplace,” Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia in a statement Tuesday marking release of the final rule. “This new rule offers employers, community colleges, and others a flexible, innovative way to quickly expand apprenticeship in telecommunications, health care, cybersecurity, and other sectors where apprenticeships currently are not widely available.”
Building trades unions mounted a vocal campaign last year to warn their blue-collar members that the administration could let builders participate in the new IRAP model, which will function separately from the longstanding registered apprenticeship system. They argued that giving builders entrée to the IRAP model would undermine organized labor’s talent pipeline under the registered apprenticeship process, over which the department and state affiliates maintain oversight and credentialing power.
The final rule comes nearly three years after President Donald Trump announced the IRAP concept in a 2017 executive order. The rule outlines a process for trade associations, unions, and companies to apply to become “standards-recognition entities” and exercise authority to certify or reject groups seeking to take part in the IRAP system.
All IRAPs will generally include a paid work component, a written training plan, on-the-job training, safety and equal opportunity provisions, a mentorship program, and an industry-recognized credential, a senior DOL official said on a call with reporters on Tuesday.
Lawsuit Teed Up?
The department signaled it expects to be sued over the new rule, possibly by construction industry groups that have been pushing to get the industry involved in IRAPs. Those groups instead can continue to participate in the separate Registered Apprenticeship Program.
The regulation includes a severability clause, stating that the rest of the rule will remain in effect if one portion is invalidated by court ruling. That would defend against the construction industry bringing a legal challenge by allowing IRAPs to continue to operate even if a judge agrees to lift the industry’s exemption.
Maury Baskin, an attorney at management-side law firm Littler Mendelson who is the counsel for the Associated Builders and Contractors, declined to comment.
The department made a number of updates to the proposed version of the rule, responding to certain concerns aired when the regulation was initially unveiled last year.
A new provision prevents groups from being approved to certify programs if they have already been suspended or debarred from doing business with the federal government. The final rule also requires standards recognition entities to conduct periodic compliance reviews of IRAPs, a move meant to strengthen oversight.
The Labor Department recently announced $100 million in grants to support expansion of apprenticeship programs, including IRAPs, even though Congress has not appropriated money for the new initiative.
House Democrats and the DOL’s internal watchdog are investigating whether the agency violated federal appropriations law by steering funds Congress authorized for registered apprenticeships to contractors who did work to advance the IRAP model.
The department has already acknowledged it misspent $1.1 million, but says it has corrected the problem. Some Democratic critics on Capitol Hill believe the DOL underestimated the amount of funds that were misspent.
Democrats have expressed concern that the IRAP system is untested and lacks the wage and safety standards guaranteed under registered apprenticeships. Capitol Hill lawmakers are interested in reauthorizing the National Apprenticeship Act—the main federal law governing apprenticeships—but talks in the House are hung up on whether to include IRAPs in the mix.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, said March 3 that a draft reauthorization of the law, due to be released soon, would not include IRAPs.