Why Wouldn’t the White House Promote Apprentices?

It seems obvious that the role of the apprentice is something President Trump appreciates so it’s a wonder why the question needs to be asked: why wouldn’t apprenticeships be a top priority in Washington?

Well, they were this week. In the midst of several news cycles that shed lots of light but little heat, you probably didn’t realize that this week was “workforce development week.” And lest you think this is reality TV, the administration made a big push on apprenticeships during cabinet meetings and talks with state leaders.

Indeed, the president this week called for 5 million new apprenticeships over the next five years, and in a rare case for Washington, he has some bipartisan backing to pursue the goal.

In the era of four-year liberal arts degrees, apprenticeships sound like something anachronistic, a leftover from the past, like colonial-era horse-shoeing and blacksmithing. In actuality, it’s a great opportunity for less-skilled workers, or workers with outdated skills, to get the training — and confidence — they need while getting paid to do the work.

Apprenticeships typically take the form of an employer and some type of education provider teaming up to offer hands-on training to prospective workers. Most apprenticeships are government certified. Importantly, apprenticeships are paid (unlike the typical internship), making them attractive to older workers who can’t go without an income and younger workers hoping to avoid borrowing for further education.

As labor economist Andy Smarick explains, apprenticeships are indeed paid, the question is by whom.

So what are possible downsides of apprenticeships? One is cost; there are nontrivial expenses associated with educating someone for a job. Obviously, employers will be wary in that investment if those trained end up taking those skills elsewhere. One question relates to education providers; who should deliver training — high schools, community colleges, unions, nonprofits, for-profits, employers? And assuming the government provides funding, how should providers be held accountable?

Of course, in Washington, success always comes down to money. And this case is no exception. The federal budget currently allocates $90 million a year to cover the cost of “regulating” apprenticeship programs. CNBC reported this week that the president doesn’t want to raise that budget by more than $5 million per year, leaving some news editorials to ponder whether the federal kitty has enough cash to keep the program purring.

Really, the challenge for Washington isn’t necessarily whether there’s enough money to grow the program, but whether it’s being used well. Politico reported that one senior administration official said, “The problem is not money … the problem is (training programs) haven’t been set up in an effective and accountable way.”

So what are the expenses being added up in Washington? They include partnerships between employers and higher education, which would mean dealing with accreditation and student aid. Or, the money could be spent on reorganizing existing federal workforce programs, which have been overlapping and wasteful.

Aside from the financial question, Smarick notes that one of the major concerns around apprenticeships is that young students coming out of high school and trained for a specific job eventually fall behind later in life because their skills “become outdated, the industry weakens, or the jobs get replaced.”

On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Labor found that “nine in 10 Americans who complete apprentice training land a job, and their average starting salary is $60,000 a year.” That’s certainly a step forward from the current situation, in which young people with high-school educations alone are roundly unprepared to enter the workforce, and generally end up in less-skilled, lower-wage jobs with less security.

Here’s a thought: No one is suggesting that high school educations be replaced with vo-tech, but if the U.S. were to go down the European model of tracking kids toward their skills aptitude, then perhaps industries as a whole could provide the ongoing job training that lawmakers so frequently laud, but rarely enable. Appropriate structuring of federal budget expenditures would not only provide enough money to fund apprenticeship accreditation, but could put programming on a path toward more accurately targeting workers for updated mid-life skills training.

Seems like that’s a program that would result in more workers hearing, “You’re hired!”

Read more from Smarick on President Trump and the basics of apprenticeships.