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Trump Job Training Plan Clouded by Funding, Labor Agency Rift

June 17, 2019, 3:00 PM

The Labor Department is set to unveil long-awaited details on a new, industry-led apprenticeship program touted as a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s jobs agenda. But it remains to be seen how the department will resolve funding questions and a dispute with the White House over what to do with the construction industry.

The DOL will make public within the week a proposed regulation establishing certification requirements for the Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program, a department spokesman told Bloomberg Law. The White House Office of Management and Budget June 14 cleared the rule, which President Donald Trump ordered the department to take up shortly after he was sworn in some two years ago. The move is designed to to expand apprenticeship opportunities and give business more say in crafting training programs.

If the administration winds up breaking from past commitments by including construction in the proposed rule, the building trade unions are preparing to abandon their support of Trump. They will mount a public campaign attacking the administration for undermining union-protected wage and safety standards, a building union lobbyist told Bloomberg Law. Some White House officials have been advocating for construction industry inclusion, opposing the blue collar organized labor groups that Trump will be courting for support in his 2020 re-election bid.

The Labor Department and the White House were in recent weeks still at odds over whether to allow construction industry groups to participate in the new apprenticeships. OMB’s regulatory clearinghouse approved the proposed regulation, according to the Labor Department spokesman. He declined to say, however, whether the regulation will make construction groups eligible to participate in the program.

Department officials have pushed to keep construction out, arguing that the industry already participates heavily in an existing Registered Apprenticeship Program. That’s drawn opposition from the the White House, where OMB officials are said to have demanded that builders be included in the industry-led program.

It’s also still unclear where the DOL will get the money to fund apprenticeships under the program. House lawmakers last week rejected a spending bill (H.R. 2740) amendment that would have allowed the department to use some of its job training allotment on grants for IRAP apprenticeships.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any takers because there’s no money,” a trade group lobbyist told Bloomberg Law.

The apprenticeship initiative has been mired in uncertainty since Trump ordered the department to launch the new program in June 2017. The Labor Department regulation establishing participation requirements has also been slowed by staff turnover and leadership vacancies at the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration.

A draft regulation obtained by Bloomberg Law in May showed that businesses would have wide latitude to craft new apprenticeship programs with minimal government oversight. That’s drawn concerns from Democrats in Congress.

Complicated Relationships

The construction debate comes at a tenuous point in the White House’s relationship with the Labor Department.

Mick Mulvaney, the president’s acting chief of staff and the OMB director, has recently taken a larger role in the department’s regulatory activity. Mulvaney created a formal mechanism for resolving disputes over rules in an effort to speed up the pace on a number of business-approved initiatives. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta—whose chief of staff was recently ousted following a White House probe—and his aides have been on the losing end, according to sources.

Meanwhile, a possible move to include construction in the new apprenticeship program is likely to aggravate building trades and other unions. The White House is at the same time courting support from those groups for a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

“We’re creating an alternative for those industries that have found that registered apprenticeship programs don’t work for them,” Acosta told the House Education and Labor Committee in May. “And what we are doing is we’re not putting the industry in charge, we are in essence saying that the industry should create a third party, often an association that creates—that almost becomes an accrediting body.”

Construction unions in an AFL-CIO collective want to continue to funnel workers through established registered apprenticeship systems. Businesses and trade groups like Associated Builders and Contractors want to have the option to create additional training opportunities through IRAP.

“We’re not knocking the existing registered apprenticeships, it does a fine job,” Drew Schneider, an Associated Builders and Contracts lobbyist, told Bloomberg Law. “Where it’s best to use registered they do, but the contractors who want the flexibility and efficiency of industry-recognized apprenticeships should have that chance.”

Building Trades Ready for War

The proposed rule cleared the OMB’s Office of Information of Regulatory Affairs over the weekend, in the immediate aftermath of the administration’s June 14 sitdown with North America’s Building Trades Unions about the apprenticeship rulemaking, according to a meeting notice posted on the OMB website.

NABTU, an umbrella group within the AFL-CIO that represents 15 individual building trade unions, has been more supportive of the Trump administration than the progressive organized labor factions. That would all change if builders are allowed to take part in IRAP, a building trades official said.

At that point, the trade unions would organize members to accuse the administration of betraying commitments to blue collar workers, the official said. The unions have already been strategizing their response and are preparing to turn the issue into a big fight in anticipation of a disappointing outcome when the proposal is unveiled. There could be no need to pull punches politically anymore, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A NABTU spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Money Matters

The Labor Department has a few places where it can look for cash to fund IRAP grants if Congress decides not to specifically appropriate money for the program.

That includes using funds allotted for the H-1B visa program, which the DOL has wide latitude to spend as it sees fit. The program offers temporary employment permits for workers in tech jobs and other specialized occupations.

The House is expected this week to pass legislation to fund the Labor Department, including a provision that would require apprenticeship money to be used only on the Registered Apprenticeship Program. The Senate has yet to introduce its own fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill.

To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com