Economy First Look

Trump administration pushes for apprenticeships

President Trump wants to reform American attitudes toward skilled trades that don’t require four-year college degrees. But can the administration scale up the program while meeting current challenges facing apprenticeships?

Johnny Moore of Raleigh, N.C., checks an a/c unit as he works as an apprentice with Piedmont Air Conditioning, July 13, 2005, in Zebulon, N.C. US employers only use apprentices for a few, hard-to-till positions, according to a 2016 Department of Commerce report. The Trump administration seeks to expand appreciation for apprenticeships in the US.
Takaaki Iwabu/The News & Observer/AP
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  • Laurie Kellman and Josh Boak
    Associated Press

President Trump says apprenticeships could match workers with millions of open jobs, but he's reluctant to devote more taxpayer money to the effort.

Instead, Mr. Trump and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta say the administration is focused on getting universities and private companies to pair up and pay the cost of such learn-to-earn arrangements.

The president has accepted a challenge from Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff to create 5 million apprenticeships over five years. Now, as part of a week-long apprenticeship push, he is visiting Waukesha County Technical College in Wisconsin Tuesday with his daughter, Ivanka, as well as Mr. Acosta and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

"Apprenticeships are going to be a big, big factor in our country," Trump said during his first-ever full Cabinet meeting Monday. "There are millions of good jobs that lead to great careers, jobs that do not require a four-year degree or the massive debt that often comes with those four-year degrees and even two-year degrees."

Many employers and economists – and Republicans and Democrats – welcome the idea of apprenticeships as a way to train people with specific skills for particular jobs that employers say they can't fill at time of historically low unemployment. The most recent budget for the federal government passed with about $90 million for apprenticeships, and Trump so far isn't proposing adding more.

But the Trump administration, like former President Barack Obama's, says there's a need that can be met with a change in the American attitude toward vocational education and apprenticeships. A November 2016 report by Mr. Obama's Commerce Department found that "apprenticeships are not fully understood in the United States, especially by employers, who tend to use apprentices for a few, hard-to-fill positions," but not as widely as they could.

The shortages for specifically-trained workers cut across multiple job sectors beyond Trump's beloved construction trades. There are shortages in agriculture, manufacturing, information technology, and health care.

"There aren't enough people to fill the jobs and the people applying don't have the skills necessary," said Conor Smyth, spokesman for the Wisconsin Technical College System, where the president, Ms. Trump, Secretary Acosta and Governor Walker were visiting.

That's where apprenticeship comes in.

Participants get on-the-job training while going to school, sometimes with companies footing the bill.

IBM, for example, participates in a six-year program called P-TECH. Students in 60 schools across six states begin in high school, when they get a paid internship, earn an associate's degree and get first-in-line consideration for jobs from 250 participating employers. It relies on funds outside the apprenticeship program – a challenge in that the Trump budget plan would cut spending overall on job training. The program uses $1.2 billion in federal funding provided under the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act passed in 2006, said P-TECH co-founder Stan Litow.

"This really demonstrates what you can do with apprenticeships with existing dollars," Mr. Litow said.

Eric Haban started as a youth apprentice junior in high school and then completed a four-year program at Lakeshore Technical College in Wisconsin, the first state in the country to pass a law establishing apprenticeship programs in 1911. At the school Trump is to visit Tuesday, Mr. Haban learned to be a machinist for LDI Industries, which makes hydraulic components and lubricating equipment.

"It really gave me a jump start to get into a field that I had no prior experience in," Haban said.

Apprenticeships are few and far between. Of the 146 million jobs in the United States, about 0.35 percent – or slightly more than a half-million – were filled by active apprentices in 2016. Filling millions more jobs through apprenticeships would require the government to massively ramp up its efforts. "Scaling is the big issue," said Robert Lerman, a fellow at the Urban Institute.

Another complication: Only about half of apprentices finish their multi-year programs, Mr. Lerman said. Fewer than 50,000 people including 11,104 in the military completed their apprenticeships in 2016, according to Labor Department.

The Trump administration has yet to spell out how it would close the completion gap.

Acosta said Monday that the policy would revolve around encouraging more partnerships between business and schools rather than increasing the $90 million the federal government currently devotes to apprenticeships.

"I want to challenge the assumption that the only way to move policy is to increase government spending," Acosta said at the Monday White House news briefing. "We should measure success based on outcomes and not simply based on spending."

Susan Helper, former chief economist at the Commerce Department, said it would likely require more than $90 million a year to cover the administrative costs of increasing the number of apprentices.

But Ms. Helper, currently a professor at Case Western University in Cleveland, noted that how federal funds are spent on apprenticeship programs also matters. Tax breaks might do little to expand the number of apprenticeships, since the major barriers involve the upfront costs of starting an apprenticeship program that helps groups of smaller employers and the community colleges often involved in apprenticeship programs.

This article has been updated to reflect the full name of Waukesha County Technical College and the correct percentage of jobs in the US that were filled by active apprentices in 2016. It is 0.35 percent.

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