College & Workforce Readiness

Trump Makes a Big Push for High School Apprenticeships

By Catherine Gewertz — June 14, 2017 8 min read
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In a move that could reverberate through U.S. high schools, President Donald J. Trump is planning a major expansion of apprenticeship programs to help build a pipeline of skilled workers for a needy labor market, and calling for cutbacks to regulations that could hobble the plan.

Update: Trump Executive Order Ramps Up Apprenticeship Programs

Apprenticeships are typically posts for adults training or retraining for jobs, through industry, labor unions, colleges, or partnerships among those sectors. They blend a structured curriculum of study with paid work. Apprenticeships for U.S. high school students are relatively rare; more often, teenagers participate in unpaid internships, or in work-based learning through career and technical education programs. But Trump clearly intends to change that landscape.

“We want a future where every high school in America offers apprenticeship opportunities for young citizens,” Trump said during a visit to a Wisconsin technical college Tuesday. “Under this vision, high school students could learn, and they could earn. ... They can make great, great salaries doing something that they love, learn invaluable skills, find a career they love, and enter the workforce faster and without debt.”

The president’s announcement highlighted a three-day push for a vision of workforce development in which apprenticeships play a key role in supplying the employees the economy needs.

Apprenticeships’ Role in ‘Skills Gap’

The president was scheduled to sign an executive order Wednesday that was rumored to supply new funds and encourage new systems for apprenticeships, particularly in fast-growing fields such as health care and information technology, but that event was cancelled. On Thursday, Trump was scheduled to discuss the issue with a group of governors.

Tuesday, Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, along with Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, visited Waukesha County Technical College in Wisconsin, where 700 business partners help shape a curriculum of study that leads to associate degrees, technical diplomas, and short-term certificates, and includes 11 apprenticeship pathways in fields such as concrete finishing and welding.

Trump’s proposal is a response to what economists call the “skills gap.” Companies report difficulty finding workers with skills that match their job openings, even with unemployment at a low. In a recent survey, top corporate leaders said they often can’t find employees—especially women and racial minorities—with strong skills in science, technology, math, and engineering. They also struggle to find people with good skills in leadership and communication, and who know how to apply knowledge to real-world situations.

The Trump team has been touting apprenticeships as a powerful tool to help close the skills gap. His top aides have pointed to the German apprenticeship system as a model, even though some American educators are uneasy about the way it tracks adolescent students into career paths.

But the importance of blending technical and workplace skills with academic learning—and not necessarily including a bachelor’s degree in that mix—is gaining traction as employers struggle to hire the right workers, and families question the value of four-year college in the face of soaring costs and student debt.

Trump echoed that view at a cabinet meeting June 12, noting that “millions of good jobs” don’t require four-year degrees “and the massive debt that often comes with those four-year degrees.”

Rhetoric Versus Funding on Job Training

Critics were quick to jump on the fact that Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget plan makes big cuts in funding for job training and high school career and technical education programs. An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the president’s budget plan cuts job-training grants to states by 40 percent, from $2.7 billion to $1.6 billion. State career and technical education grants through the Carl D. Perkins Act would drop 15 percent. Trump’s plan includes $90 million for apprenticeships, about the same as in last year’s budget.

“One one hand, he’s lifting up apprenticeships, and on the other, he’s negatively impacting programs that affect those apprenticeships, and the pathways that lead to them,” said Eric M. Seleznow, who oversaw workforce development, job training, and apprenticeship expansion as the deputy assistant secretary of labor under President Barack Obama.

About half of the nation’s 1 million apprenticeships are “registered” with the Department of Labor, according to Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. That process requires programs to abide by standards of quality for classroom curriculum and on-the-job instruction, and confer national, industry-recognized credentials. But many employers have criticized the registration process as burdensome.

Relying on an expansion of apprenticeships to make a significant dent in the skills gap is “completely unrealistic,” Carnevale said. Currently, registered apprenticeships account for only 0.3 percent of the American workforce, and employers—not the federal government—foot the bill for the time-intensive training, he said. It’s unlikely that Trump can spark a widespread commitment by employers to invest the “billions” necessary to make apprenticeships an engine of economic growth, Carnevale said.

Regulations in the Crosshairs

The administration has been signaling that it thinks increased efficiency and decreased regulation, rather than increased spending, will improve job-training programs. In a June 12 memo, Acosta asked all cabinet secretaries to “support the administration’s apprenticeship initiative by removing obstacles ... that may be present in current regulations or practices.”

Which regulations would be targeted wasn’t yet clear.

At a June 7 conference sponsored by the Business Roundtable, Trump adviser Reed S. Cordish said the president wants to expand the use of student aid for “vocational education” and apprenticeships without too much “bureaucracy getting in the way.” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced Wednesday that the department is reconsidering “gainful employment” rules that restrict how for-profit colleges use federal student aid, and were intended to protect students against fraud, saying that they are “overly burdensome,” and that it’s “time for a regulatory reset.”

Federal student financial aid is typically restricted to programs at institutions that grant academic degrees. Many programs that confer industry credentials and other certifications are not currently included in that category, according to Megan McClean Coval, the vice president of public policy and federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Seleznow, who now heads the new Center for Apprenticeships and Work-Based Learning at Jobs for the Future, said he would be concerned if Trump supports a big expansion of apprenticeships outside the Department of Labor’s registration process.

“We want to make sure those protections continue, and that the barriers they’re talking about [eliminating] will not change that program,” Seleznow said.

A Glimpse of High School Apprenticeships

If it takes shape, Trump’s vision could encourage more high schools to offer apprenticeships or programs of study that include work-based learning experiences. Ella Johnson’s journey in Wisconsin offers an example.

Ella took welding classes in high school, and participted in a dual-enrollment program at Waukesha County Technical College. When she graduated from high school this spring, she had a diploma, an industry-recognized welding certificate, a part-time welding job, and credits toward her associate degree. Now she’s studying welding full-time at Waukesha, and earning $12 an hour at Wisconsin Metal Parts. Her college studies will help her deepen her skills, enabling her to run welding robots, she said.

“It’s giving me a great head start on my welding career,” Ella said.

A program in Colorado provides another glimpse of what schools might do in responding to Trump’s call. Using $9.5 million in support from Bloomberg Philanthropies and JPMorgan Chase, Colorado is working to create 20,000 youth apprenticeships over the next decade. One hundred students are slated to begin the program as they enter 11th grade this fall. They’ll spend up to half their time in paid posts, training for jobs in manufacturing, business operations, financial services and information technology, and will earn credit toward their diplomas and college degrees.

President Barack Obama also sought to use apprenticeships to bolster the American workforce. In 2014, his departments of education and labor collaborated on an initiative that called on community colleges to grant credit for the time students spend in the workplace in registered apprenticeships. His ApprenticeshipUSA program, launched in 2016, gave out $90 million in grants to states, businesses, and intermediary groups to create more apprenticeships, expand them into sectors where they’re less common, and connect more women and racial minorities with those opportunities.

Trump, who famously judged the business acumen of aspiring executives on television’s “The Apprentice” before he became president, proposes a $5 million cut to the ApprenticeshipUSA program in his 2018 budget plan, according to Advance CTE, an organization of state career-tech-ed leaders.

Photo: President Donald Trump, accompanied by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, second from left, and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, second from right, examines the work of aspiring machinists during a tour of Waukesha County Technical College in Pewaukee, Wis., on June 13. —Andrew Harnik/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.