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Trump Apprenticeship Program: Some Answers, Many Questions

Dec. 19, 2018, 10:46 AM

Labor Department information about its new nationwide apprenticeship program has unions and trade groups apprehensive.

Establishing the department’s Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program has been a central plank of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s tenure since he took the helm of the agency. IRAP was born out of President Donald Trump’s Executive Order to Expand Apprenticeship in America.

Unions, employers, and various trade groups were initially enthusiastic, but based on what the DOL has released so far on what IRAP might look like, that enthusiasm has turned into uncertainty. The DOL is looking to unveil the full IRAP regulatory proposal in the new year and will begin accepting applications for program certifiers in the coming weeks. Some stakeholders feel that the program is progressing too fast for the public, or the agency, to properly consider the potential risks and consequences.

Groups are questioning the value of participating in the program, and labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO and the North America’s Building Trades Unions are raising red flags over the lack of government oversight, potential conflicts of interest, and the welfare of apprentices.

“They shouldn’t be in such a hurry to complete this program. There’s no clarity on what people will be signing up for or what responsibilities will be,” Eric Seleznow, director of Jobs for the Future’s Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning, told Bloomberg Law. Seleznow served as the deputy assistant secretary for the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration in the Obama administration. Jobs for the Future is an advocacy group aimed at workforce development.

Still a Work in Progress

The DOL received “a number of constructive comments” on the apprenticeship program and is currently working through them, a department spokeswoman said.

Creating a new apprenticeship model is an exciting concept, Gardner Carrick, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Manufacturing Institute, told Bloomberg Law.

The National Association of Manufacturers and its social impact arm, the Manufacturing Institute, are working with the DOL to help frame what IRAP will look like, he said. NAM shared some concerns with the Labor Department about the program, Carrick said, adding that the program is a work in progress.

“We’re hopeful that this process yields a result that creates a sustainable apprenticeship program,” he said.

What Will IRAP Do?

IRAP will serve as the alternative system to the 80-year-old Registered Apprenticeship Program. Registered Apprenticeship programs must meet standards established by the DOL’s Office of Apprenticeship and get approval from a State Apprenticeship Agency or directly from the DOL.

IRAP will have less government oversight, as it tasks designated third-party certifiers with approving a sponsor’s program, no government funding is thus far involved, and the DOL has established that IRAPs can’t be used in the construction industry or for military apprenticeships. Any business, union, or educational institution can create an industry-focused apprenticeship program.

The ETA issued guidance in July that outlined how to become an IRAP certifier. The agency put these standards out for public comment as part of its Information Collection Request in September. By the Nov. 19 deadline, 33 comments from labor organizations and industry groups were received, and a majority had questions over what were widely considered vague requirements.

“Information requested from potential accreditors is limited and not clearly defined,” NABTU said in its comment letter. “This makes the approval process for accreditors inadequate to the task at hand.”

EEO Concerns

NABTU, the Institute for American Apprenticeships, and other organizations list the equal employment opportunity requirements for IRAP as a top concern.

The DOL requires IRAP sponsors to “ensure that their outreach to, and recruitment of, apprentices extend to all persons without regard to race, sex, ethnicity, or disability.” The standards say broadly that outreach strategies must be developed to reach diverse populations, and program sponsors need to take steps to create a harassment-free workplace.

NABTU said that’s not good enough. It’s unclear how the Labor Department will ensure EEO requirements are enforced, or whether the requirements for IRAP are a lesser standard than those laid out for the current apprenticeship program. NABTU went on to ask what happens if a sponsor doesn’t meet the EEO requirements.

“Given the importance of EEO regulations in the Registered Apprenticeship System, this seems to be a significant omission in the implementation of a system for IRAPs that is intended to extend the benefits of the apprenticeship models to new and underserved groups of workers,” NABTU said.

Excluding Unions Leads to ‘Death Spiral’

Jim Reid, the apprenticeship director for the International Association of Machinists, said the DOL’s effort to establish IRAP left out many crucial union voices.

“To me, this has been a way to avoid union involvement in setting the criteria and the principles of the program,” Reid said.

Unions across the country organize their apprenticeship programs, establishing a pipeline of young workers to later get unionized jobs in various trades. Emphasizing an industry- or business-led program risks causing a loss of union jobs, he said.

“If you’re trained in how to do just one type of job, then you’re not being trained in a proper apprenticeship,” he said. “As good union members retire, who are we replacing them with? We are replacing them with less skilled workers that can’t meet the needs. Then the company goes down hill, then the union goes down hill. It turns into a death spiral.”

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

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bloomberglaw.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com