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Trump’s Budget Poised to Reignite Apprenticeship Funding Debate

Feb. 7, 2020, 9:11 PM

The White House’s upcoming budget proposal may again seek funding to launch President Donald Trump’s industry-led apprenticeship model, but a growing political divide over the initiative is threatening congressional efforts to bankroll it and dampening enthusiasm from the business community.

The Trump administration has requested $160 million and $200 million for the last two fiscal years, respectively, to support Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs, a new design to train workers in emerging industries by transferring government oversight to companies, trade groups, and unions. The program would function separately from the Labor Department’s long-established registered apprenticeship system.

Congress has yet to authorize a single dollar for Trump’s alternative model amid mounting Democratic concerns over a million-dollar funding misstep. Some lawmakers say IRAPs are unproven and lack the wage and safety standards of the New-Deal-era registered apprenticeship programs.

But what distinguishes upcoming negotiations over Fiscal 2021 funding is that the budget proposal the White House is set to send to Capitol Hill on Feb. 10 coincides with the Labor Department’s forthcoming final rule to implement the IRAP model. The final rule will allow the program to go live, increasing the stakes during budget talks in a presidential election year for a program that was once the centerpiece of Trump’s workplace policy agenda.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), ranking member of the House Appropriations subcommittee for labor agencies, said he expects the White House to request funding for industry-run apprenticeships. Some Democrats say that’s a non-starter in any 2021 budget or spending talks, while others are looking to renegotiate the National Apprenticeship Act to block the IRAP initiative.

Presidential budget requests are traditionally heavy on policy messaging and often disregarded by Congress on many points. But increasing questions over whether lawmakers will agree to finance the new apprenticeship system are compounding the uncertainty surrounding IRAPs among industry and workforce development stakeholders.

“With respect to the IRAP regulations, I think we’re all kind of in wait-and-see mode,” said Kermit Kaleba, managing director of policy at the National Skills Coalition, an organization promoting workforce education that’s governed by representatives from business, labor, community colleges, and the public sector.

Kaleba said federal resources are particularly helpful to incentivize small- and medium-sized businesses to participate in apprenticeships, and described the current mood within industry as a departure from “what seemed like a lot of initial enthusiasm for rethinking apprenticeship.”

Labor Department spokespeople didn’t respond to requests for comment.

H-1B Fees Available

The DOL will soon announce about $100 million in grant awards to expand both registered and industry-recognized apprenticeships. The department has the flexibility to fund IRAPs using H-1B visa fees. But to achieve the White House’s goal of massively upscaling the earn-as-you-learn job-training model, workforce development advocates say much more money is necessary.

Montez King, executive director of the National Institute of Metalworking Skills and an ardent supporter of the IRAP concept, said there’s a need for dedicated federal funds, particularly to mount a public awareness campaign that would drive greater participation. King, a member of a presidential apprenticeship task force convened earlier in the Trump administration, acknowledged it isn’t realistic to think appropriators will be able to reach an agreement in budget talks.

Others in the workforce community argue companies are holding back from signing up for IRAPs because of uncertainty around the parameters of the final rule and whether participation will be worth it for them.

“Whether there is significant take up of this untested program may depend less on funding and more on the perceived quality of the final program, the ease of use for employers, and local interest on the ground,” said Eric Seleznow, a senior adviser at Jobs For the Future, who was a deputy assistant secretary at DOL’s Employment and Training Administration during the Obama administration. “The past two years of IRAP discourse has already caused great confusion in a field that needs to work hard to explain the promise of apprenticeship to employers and workers.”

The confusion stems partially from a Labor Department publicity campaign and grant programs to boost the IRAP system, even though the eligibility standards had yet to be publicly released. The DOL also issued guidance for the program, only to pull it back.

Bipartisanship Fades?

The registered apprenticeship model had enjoyed bipartisan support for decades, but the politics of apprenticeship programs has changed since Trump outlined his IRAP concept in a 2017 executive order.

The department damaged the administration’s chances of securing funding for IRAPs when it admitted that $1.1 million in funding that had been provided for registered apprenticeships was misspent on efforts to promote IRAPs. The Republican and Democratic leaders of the appropriations panels that fund the DOL warned Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia in November about his department’s admission that it misused congressionally appropriated funding.

Cole said he still supports the basic concept of industry-run apprenticeships and believes there are members on both sides of the aisle that back the idea. He isn’t ruling out providing financial support in the 2021 budget to get IRAPs off the ground.

“I think as long as there are adequate safeguards put in place and that people are reassured” that the accounting is above board, the program could get funding from Congress, he said.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), top House appropriator for labor agencies, said House Democrats will fight any attempt by the White House or Republicans to use congressional funding for industry-run apprenticeships. DeLauro said DOL officials are expected to come before the House Appropriations labor subcommittee in coming weeks and that this issue will be an area of discussion.

New Legislative Push

Separate from the budget and spending process, lawmakers are in early stages of renegotiating the National Apprenticeship Act, which regulates apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs. Early indications from Democrats and Republicans show both parties are looking to broaden the legislation.

Democrats are hoping to change the apprenticeship funding conversation this year to focus solely on the registered system through the law’s reauthorization. The law doesn’t have an expiration, but Democrats are mounting a push for reauthorization this year to shore up the registered system because they fear it will be undermined by IRAPs.

Lawmakers are “looking at how we can improve it,” said Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), a strident supporter of unions and registered apprenticeships. He said Democrats won’t support funding for IRAPs through the appropriations process or the separate apprenticeship act reauthorization.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Education and Labor Committee’s Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee, has taken lead in starting talks over reauthorizing the law, Norcross said. A representative for Davis didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Davis worked with Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), her co-chair on the Congressional Apprenticeship Caucus, on legislation that would have offered a $50 million grant to expand registered apprenticeship programs and awareness. That bill went nowhere in the House last year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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