The Department of Labor recently announced its initiative to expand apprenticeship programs to new sectors of the economy. However, a group of Senate democrats have criticized the program, claiming it lacks the same high standards that other traditional apprenticeship programs possess.
The new program, called the Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program (IRAP), allocates $183.8 million to 23 academic institutions to establish new apprenticeship opportunities in information technology, healthcare, and advanced manufacturing.
In June 2017, through an executive order, President Donald Trump requested that a task force be put together to develop the IRAP program. The group included the secretaries of education, labor and commerce, as well as White House advisor and first-daughter Ivanka Trump. The guidelines the group compiled quickly drew criticism from 11 democrats, including Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
In a letter to Department of Labor secretary Alexander Acosta, the democrats said the new IRAP program lacks nationwide standards, such as mandatory wage increases, as well as the Department of Labor oversight seen in the traditional Registered Apprenticeship Program.
In a press release in February, the 11 democrats said that the Trump Administration’s proposed rulemaking creates new “‘industry-recognized apprenticeship programs’ that run parallel to the current registered apprenticeships, but with lower quality standards and bypassing the approval of the Department of Labor.”
Under the new initiative, the groups authorizing the IRAPs could be “trade, industry, and employer groups or associations, educational institutions, state and local government entities, non-profit organizations, unions, or a consortium or partnership of these entities,” the Department of Labor’s press release stated. These entities would be called Standard Recognition Entities (SREs), and would be responsible for setting up trainings, curricula, and training standards for the IRAPs.
Yet, democrats fear that having non-governmental, private bodies participate in the program is a violation of the National Apprenticeship Act. This act enables the Department of Labor to “bring together employers and labor for the formulation of programs of apprenticeships,” but does not award this power to non-governmental entities, which would occur under the new program.
However, a Department of Labor spokesperson told The College Post that companies who partner with schools through this program come from trade industry groups or associations and have to meet Department of Labor standards to be involved in the program.
“Similar to the U.S. Department of Education and higher education accrediting bodies, Standards Recognition Entities (SREs) would be recognized through the U.S. Department of Labor to ensure requirements are met, resulting in high-quality IRAPs,” the spokesperson said.
Some of the schools taking advantage of the new IRAP opportunities also see far more positives than negatives in the initiative. John Wensveen, the vice provost of academic schools at Miami-Dade College, spearheaded the program at the college and said his institution sets high curriculum standards and ensures that all participating instructors are certified.
“I disagree that this program has lower standards than other apprenticeship models,” Wensveen told The College Post. “In the case of Miami Dade College and our partners, we collaborate directly with industry and employers setting the standard in terms of curriculum of training format.”
Another concern some have voiced surrounding these new apprenticeships is that students may become cheap labor for companies, and that the program lacks mandatory wage increases which the traditional Registered Apprenticeship program accounts for.
However, under the new IRAP program, apprentices will have the opportunity to receive stipends from the college’s federal grant to cover costs associated with their position such as books, supplies, and industry certification exams. Students will also receive an hourly wage from employers, which will differ depending on occupation and employer, according to Wensveen.
Each partnership between the employer and apprentice will be looked at individually when it comes to negotiating student wages, Wensveen added. At Miami-Dade College, IRAPs will aim to provide every student with a livable wage.
Also, to make participating in the new program more attractive for companies, colleges will give them a stipend out of the federal grant money they receive. This money can then be used to pay apprentices for their work, without financially burdening the company.
“Because this is a ‘learn and earn’ model, employers will compensate apprentices on an hourly basis and grant funding helps support associated overhead costs making it more feasible and attractive for employers, especially small companies with limited resources to participate in the development of the apprenticeship program,” Wensveen said.
However, the stipend for employers is not the only motivation for companies to get involved in IRAPs. The opportunities to host new apprentices would provide a new source of talent for the three industries involved that are currently experiencing low unemployment rates and are struggling to find skilled workers.
Because IRAPs offer a new pipeline for struggling industries to train students and ensure workers for the future, Wensveen believes these new programs will guarantee that companies train apprentices to a high standard, since it is an investment in their future.
“The apprenticeship program is a major investment for all stakeholders and must have a return on investment, meaning long-term success for all stakeholders,” he said.
According to the Department of Labor, IRAP will create 85,000 apprentices and will emphasize opportunities for veterans, military spouses, and service members, as well as groups that are traditionally underrepresented in apprenticeship work such as women, people of color, and people transitioning from the justice system to the workforce.