How Trump’s Executive Order Would Undermine Quality Apprenticeship

In this February 16, 2017, photo, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), right, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), second from right, and coal miners watch as President Donald Trump holds up H.J. Res. 38 after signing it in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington.

The Trump administration released an executive order authorizing the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to move forward with efforts to permit third parties—such as industry groups, trade associations, companies, and other nonprofit and for-profit providers—to certify Registered Apprenticeship programs. This executive order comes on the heels of former President Barack Obama’s unprecedented $265 million investment aimed at developing high-quality Registered Apprenticeship programs, and will seriously undermine recent bipartisan efforts to increase workers’ access to good, well-paying jobs through apprenticeship.

Apprenticeship is an earn-and-learn training strategy whereby apprentices participate in structured, on-the-job training, while earning a wage. Apprenticeship programs are registered with the DOL, and registration signifies to both workers and employers that the program meets certain standards. The so-called “industry-recognized” apprenticeships that the Trump administration will create could sidestep long-held labor standards that define Registered Apprenticeship, which is well known for good wages and quality skill development, and is well-regarded by workers, employers, and policymakers alike.

What is Registered Apprenticeship?

  • Congress passed the Fitzgerald Act in 1937, authorizing the secretary of labor to “formulate and promote the furtherance of labor standards necessary to safeguard the welfare of apprentices and to cooperate with the States in the promotion of such standards.”
  • The DOL has since promulgated regulations that established labor standards for apprenticeship programs and that govern equal opportunity employment in apprenticeship programs.
  • The labor standards require sponsors of apprenticeship programs—typically employers, consortia of employers, or unions—to meet certain requirements. Registered Apprenticeship programs must:
    • Involve employers
    • Offer structured, on-the-job training
    • Offer related technical or academic classroom instruction
    • Have a progressively increasing schedule of wages—starting at not less than the minimum wage—for the apprentice that is tied to skills mastery
    • Award a nationally-portable, nationally-recognized Department of Labor credential upon completion

 So-called industry-certified apprenticeship programs would undermine quality apprenticeships

  • Undermines the definition of apprenticeship. The executive order defines an apprenticeship as an “arrangement that includes a paid-work component and an educational or instructional component, wherein an individual obtains workplace-relevant knowledge and skills,” a major departure from the existing federal definition, which is much more specific regarding the structure of on-the-job training, and the wage schedule.
  • Undermines quality assurance. According to the executive order, the secretary of labor could allow third parties broad discretion in how they ensure that these programs meet quality standards. It is unclear from the order whether those standards would be the existing federal standards, or new standards developed by the third party or by the DOL.
  • Undermines wage requirements. The executive order only addresses wages to the extent that it acknowledges that an apprenticeship arrangement is paid. It does not address scheduled wage increases, meaning that workers enrolled in these programs may not be guaranteed a raise as their skills progress. Additionally, the new definition of apprenticeship offered by the executive order, coupled with the lack of clarity on wages and wage progression, makes it totally unclear whether apprentices would be classified as employees and paid at least minimum wage.
  • Opens the door to federal funding without safeguards. As Registered Apprenticeships, these new programs—which would not necessarily have to adhere to existing federal standards—would also be eligible to access federal dollars through programs such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).
  • Undermines credibility and portability of Registered Apprenticeship among employers. Given that these programs will be also be known as Registered Apprenticeships, it will be difficult for employers to know whether a former apprentice has received training that meets the applicable federal standards, or whether the apprentice participated in a lower-quality program that did not meet the same standards. In addition to undermining employers’ faith in apprenticeship, it may also undermine portability of the Registered Apprenticeship credential, as employers will be less inclined to view it as a signal of skills mastery.

President Trump’s apprenticeship executive order represents yet another broken promise to workers

Rather than helping workers access quality, well-paying jobs, President Trump’s deeply misguided proposal would make workers vulnerable to low-quality programs that don’t offer the skills or wages apprenticeship programs for which apprenticeship programs are known. Indeed, the president’s proposal—which comes on the heels of his budget proposal that would gut job training programs—would make it easier for low-quality providers to access already limited federal funds. Once again, the president is putting the needs of workers last.

Angela Hanks is the associate director for Workforce Development Policy on the Economic Policy team at American Progress.