Trump’s apprenticeship taskforce needs an apprenticeship
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Last June, President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE paid a visit to a manufacturing training center in Wisconsin. He met with governors to talk skills gaps and talent pipelines. Among his first statements on higher education, Trump’s workforce development vision was met with a degree of cautious optimism from would-be critics that seems unfathomable just a year later. With good reason: a tight labor market is fueling costly churn, and forcing employers to mine for talent in unconventional places. The shrinking shelf life of skills is forcing job seekers to consider faster + cheaper pathways to acquiring capabilities that will enable them to compete in today’s dynamic labor market.

The centerpiece of Trump’s training agenda was a push to “remove federal restrictions” on apprenticeships. He charged Ivanka with leading a Task Force. And last month, they published a much-awaited report.

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But the reaction to the Task Force’s report brings to mind the old adage: “if a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The sound of crickets is a result of the fact that the Task Force report does little to address the key barriers to expanding apprenticeships in America. Among its recommendations, the report calls for a new category of apprenticeship to complement Department of Labor registered apprenticeship programs, which many see as unwieldy. The new “industry-recognized apprenticeship” would have characteristics that are hard to debate: “flexible,” “simplified,” and “affordable” with a “focus on mastery” more than “seat time.”

While the report is long on vision, it is short on details. The administration offers no game-plan – or funding – to address the growing divide between our training infrastructure and the demands of our economy. Notably, the Task Force failed to address the barriers to establishing apprenticeships in new economy sectors. And it leaves old economy sectors, where the vast majority of America’s estimated 400,000 non-military apprenticeships are currently situated, untouched. So we shouldn’t be surprised that a Task Force dominated by the old economy union leaders like the President of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers suggests piloting this brave new model “in an industry without well-established apprenticeship programs.”

There are three key barriers to establishing apprenticeships in new economy sectors. The first – and the one that the Task Force report at least glances at – is funding. Jumping through the many DOL hoops to become a registered apprenticeship does not guarantee funding for the cost of the training. While the funding is federal, funding decisions are made at the state or local level by workforce boards and intermediaries that ration and distort the allocations of existing federal funds. Whether we’re looking at a new industry-recognized apprenticeship or the old registered apprenticeship, the goal should be the same: once you’re approved, the cost of the training is funded. As there isn’t enough Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding to go around, absent significant increases in WIOA funding, solving the funding gap will require creativity, such as allowing states to use WIOA funding on a match basis, or even allowing Pell Grants to be used to fund the cost of apprenticeship training.

 Another challenge ignored by the report is lackluster corporate enthusiasm for apprenticeships in America. With the exception of German and Swiss subsidiaries, you can count on two hands the number of major American employers that have launched modern apprenticeship programs. Government has a role to play in selling the concept and making the case that savvy businesses will reap economic returns on apprenticeship programs.

A global perspective tells us that at a national scale, apprenticeships are sold and not bought, which requires the involvement of intermediaries that establish, manage, and deliver apprenticeship programs on behalf of employers, standing between the employer, the apprentice and the government and “hiding the wiring” for all. The UK government, for example, incentivized the growth of so-called Apprenticeship Service Providers (ASPs) with payments tied to signing up employers and apprentices. There are now 1,500 ASPs in the UK building “earn-and-learn” pathways to employment. But the Task Force report is strangely silent on the critical role of ASPs and how the federal government can encourage their growth.

The Apprenticeship Task Force also ignores the crucial cultural and management capacity required to embrace a new era of apprenticeships at a time when few employers are equipped for a flood of 18- and 19-year-old apprentices in their offices and plants. Maturity is a real concern. So is management bandwidth. It’s simply unrealistic to believe that U.S. employers have the capacity to manage millions of young apprentices on the job.

To address this fundamental challenge, President Trump’s Department of Labor has the opportunity to define a uniquely American model for apprenticeships. Our solutions won’t be discovered on “apprenticeship junkets” to Germany and Switzerland. Because while America leads the world in student loan debt, it also leads the world in outsourcing. American companies outsource hundreds of processes to specialized service providers. And it is at these service providers where new “outsourced apprenticeships” will take root.

Whether in software development, cybersecurity, health informatics, claims processing, digital marketing, or benefits administration, service providers can tap the potential of apprenticeships to add a “talent pipeline” component to their value proposition – providing clients with not only world class service, but also proven talent clients can hire in the form of apprentices. These “outsourced apprenticeships” can reduce the risk of bad hires – and early churn. Take a digital marketing service provider, for example. There’s no reason such a company couldn’t differentiate itself in the market by also serving as a funnel of proven, entry-level digital marketing talent for its clients. And the best part is that clients won’t have to manage the apprentices until they decide to bring them on as full-time employees. Through outsourced apprenticeships, service providers have a leading role to play in growing American apprenticeships. And yet the potential of focusing on service providers rather than employers themselves seems to have escaped the attention of the Task Force entirely.

The word apprentice comes from the Latin/French “apprendre,” which means to learn. With luck, this Task Force – and future apprenticeship efforts – can stay true to their purpose and learn how to address the real barriers to growing American apprenticeships.

Ryan Craig is Managing Director of University Ventures, a firm reimagining the future of higher education and creating new pathways from education to employment. He is the author of the upcoming “A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College.”