College & Workforce Readiness

Trump Wants More Apprenticeships—Starting in High School

By Catherine Gewertz — June 20, 2017 4 min read
President Donald Trump displays an executive order signed at the White House during last week’s Apprenticeship and Workforce of Tomorrow initiative event.

In a move that could reverberate through U.S. high schools, President Donald Trump is planning a major expansion of apprenticeship programs to help build a pipeline of skilled workers, and calling for cutbacks to regulations that could hobble the proposal.

The president signed an executive order last week that envisions apprenticeships in all high schools and the creation of a new channel for getting them approved by federal officials.

“Apprenticeships place students into great jobs without the crippling debt of four-year college degrees. Instead, apprentices earn while they learn,” Trump said as he signed the order at the White House.

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 American high school students are relatively rare; more often, teenagers participate in internships, or in work-based learning through career-and-technical-education programs.

But Trump, who once judged aspiring business executives as the host of “The Apprentice” television series, clearly intends to change that landscape. At a tour of a Wisconsin technical college last week, he said he’d like to see a future that includes apprenticeships at “every high school in America.”

The president’s order punctuates his push for a system of workforce development in which apprenticeships play a key role in supplying the employees the economy needs. Trump’s proposal is a response to companies’ reports of difficulty finding workers with skills that match their job openings.

Half the country’s 1 million apprenticeships are “registered” with the U.S. Department of Labor. That process requires programs to meet standards of quality, ensuring that students are paid more than minimum wage and that they receive nationally recognized industry credentials when they complete their programs.

Trump’s order aims to build an additional channel of access to that system. It would allow trade associations, labor unions, industry, and third-party training providers to set their own standards and criteria for apprenticeship programs and then seek expedited approval from the Labor Department. That system, senior White House officials said, would preserve the registration process’ quality-control mechanisms while allowing experts in the field to shape programs.

New Avenues of Access

In comments during a three-day push for workforce development, Trump said he wanted to allow students to use federal financial aid for “earn-while-you-learn programs,” such as apprenticeships, and he urged policymakers to revise rules that might stand in the way.

Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta issued a memo to all cabinet secretaries last week asking them to support the initiative by “removing obstacles to apprenticeship growth that may be present in current regulations and practices.”

White House officials said the initiative would be supported by the use of available money from the ApprenticeshipUSA program, which was funded at $90 million this year. Trump has requested the same amount next year. But the officials also said Trump wants Congress to provide $100 million more for workforce development.

Critics were quick to question the viability of Trump’s plans, since his fiscal 2018 budget proposal 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 CTE grants through the Carl D. Perkins Act would drop 15 percent.

“On 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.

Relying on an expansion of apprenticeships to make a significant dent in the skills gap is “completely unrealistic,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

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.

Trump’s desire to expand the use of financial aid would represent a “major shift” in how the federal program operates and would require congressional approval, said Karen McCarthy, the director of policy analysis for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Currently, federal student aid can be used only in programs eligible under federal law: an institution of higher education, a proprietary institution of higher education, or a postsecondary vocational institution, she said.

Programs must lead to an associate, bachelor’s, professional, or graduate degree; last for at least two years and provide full credit toward a bachelor’s degree; or last at least one academic year and culminate in a certificate or other “nondegree recognized credential” that “prepares students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation,” McCarthy said.

A proposed expansion of financial-aid rules could also face opposition in the wake of revelations about for-profit colleges that accepted federal financial aid and left their graduates unable to earn enough to pay off huge student debts.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2017 edition of Education Week as President Trump Seeks to Expand Apprenticeships

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