The National Apprenticeship Act: a Win-Win for America
In today’s rancorous political environment, it’s not easy to find legislative proposals with support from both sides of the political aisle, but on February 5, in a bipartisan vote – 219 Democrats and 28 Republicans – the House of Representatives passed the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021, sending it to the Senate for approval. If it becomes law, the Act would invest more than $3.5 billion over the next five years to create nearly 1 million new apprenticeship opportunities. It would also yield a projected $10.6 billion in benefits, including increased tax revenue, boosted employee productivity, and lowered spending on public-assistance programs and unemployment insurance.
The new apprenticeship bill would attempt to build upon one of the nation’s most successful job training programs: the Registered Apprenticeship (RA) system, instituted during the Great Depression, a workforce-development program boasting 94% job placement and an average annual starting salary of above $70,000. Under the RA system, apprenticeship workers receive government-paid, on-the-job training in their respective job fields from prospective employers. Yet, for all of the RA system’s success, only 0.3% of America’s workforce has completed an apprenticeship program, and the U.S. spends just 0.1% of GDP on workforce training and employment programs. Our industrialized competitor nations expend about six times as much, as a percentage of GDP, on similar programs. The National Apprenticeship Act would look to remedy this situation by authorizing $800 million over the next five fiscal years to support the creation or expansion of registered apprenticeship, youth apprenticeship, and pre-apprenticeship programs (for those 16 years or older).
The scope of the apprenticeship programs would include non-traditional occupations, such as winemaking, tree trimming, painting, and senior care, as well as other high-demand social service-related industries. The effort would also include non-traditional populations, such as those formerly incarcerated and individuals with disabilities. The program would focus on small- and medium-sized employers.
The Act will also establish or expand educational-institution alignment with programs under the national apprenticeship system. It would codify the roles and responsibilities of the Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeships, which includes establishing the evaluation system for the national apprenticeship system to bring performance metrics in line with those of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, as well as the State Apprenticeship Agencies, which will receive $115 million through FY 2026. Lastly, the legislation strengthens connections between the Departments of Education and Labor through an agreement to support the creation and expansion of youth apprenticeships, college consortiums, and data-sharing.
According to Labor Department program data, the RA programs show positive trends in recent years. For example, in FY 2019, over 252,000 people entered the apprenticeship system, with 81,000 apprentices graduating that fiscal year. In addition, more than 633,000 apprentices were developing job-related skills in FY 2019. Moreover, nearly 25,000 registered apprenticeship programs were active in the U.S., with 3,113 new apprenticeship programs established nationwide in FY 2019 – a 128% increase from 2009.
The COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on a deficit of qualified workers in critical skilled trades and occupations. Interest groups endorsing the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021 include labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO and International Brotherhood of Teamsters; business associations and companies, such as the Manufacturing Institute and IBM; educational associations, including the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association for Career and Technical Education; and local government organizations, from the National League of Cities to the United States Conference of Mayors.
As Annelies Goger and Chenoah Sinclair of the Brookings Institution noted recently, it’s time “to adapt apprenticeship for today’s economy and make it a more integral part of our education and training ecosystem in order to increase access to quality jobs, especially for young people – a group that has suffered the greatest job losses in the current recession.” With the U.S. unemployment rate standing at 6.3% in January, 10 million Americans remaining unemployed, and approximately 10,000 fewer manufacturing employees in the labor force, an expansion and re-orientation of this highly successful workforce-development program is deserving of bipartisan Senate passage.