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Trump's Apprenticeship Task Force Sheds No New Light on High School Expansion

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President Trump's task force on apprenticeship has issued its final report. But even though the president said he wants to see apprenticeship opportunities in every U.S. high school, the report makes no mention of how that might happen.

After only five meetings, the 20-member task force quietly released its recommendations on May 10, accompanied by a short press release, and no press conference. That low-profile approach is in marked contrast to the bells-and-whistles event at the White House in June 2017, featuring a smiling Trump signing an executive order calling for a major expansion of apprenticeships.

The task force's charge was to recommend ways to create a new channel for approval of what Trump calls "earn as you learn" programs. That channel would be separate and distinct from the Department of Labor's longstanding registered apprenticeship program.

In the new "Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship programs," or IRAPs, employers would partner with third-party training organizations (which could include community colleges) to develop the apprenticeship programs, and have them certified by overseers such as industry associations.

But despite Trump's call for apprenticeships in "every high school in America," the phrase "high school" appears only seven times in the final report, and they're all in an introductory section that recaps the past and current landscape of apprenticeship. The word "youth"—as in "youth apprenticeship," the phrase that usually describes such programs for those under 18— appears only three times in the report: twice in the footnotes and once in a task force member's biography.

Anyone hoping for more detail about how the new apprenticeship program would play out in high schools will have to wait longer. 

And it isn't entirely clear what the next step is. According to one source who listened to the task force meetings, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said the department would not issue regulations for the program. That means further details about how the program should take shape would likely come in the form of Labor Department guidance. Labor Department press representatives didn't immediately respond to questions about whether guidance was imminent.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was one of three cabinet secretaries who co-chaired the task force. In its final report, she commended the group for its work to "challenge old notions and generate new ideas that will expand the number of educational and career pathways available to Americans." She applauded what she called the task force's recognition that the stigma about apprenticeships must end, and that "a traditional college education and a modern-day apprenticeship are no longer mutually exclusive education options."

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wrote in the final report that the recommendations "will make 2018 an inflection point in the history of American apprenticeships." 

But watchers of the project were skeptical. Eric Seleznow, who oversaw President Barack Obama's apprenticeship and workforce-development initiatives at the Department of Labor and is now a senior advisor with Jobs for the Future, said the report "raises more questions than it answers" about how the new program would work. He said strong guidance from the Department of Labor is necessary to ensure that the programs are built to quality standards with good oversight.

Mary Alice McCarthy, who leads the New America Foundation's Center on Education & Skills, noted in a blog post with three colleagues that "details remain scant" about how the new IRAPs would work.

They defined several questions they believe need resolution through clear guidance from the Department of Labor, including what role the new certifiers will play, how the new programs will be funded, and how to ensure that program quality will not be watered down as new employers become involved.

The task force itself acknowledged that important questions about the certification process are still unanswered. Its regulatory committee laid them out this way:

  • How will the U.S. Department of Labor differentiate between high- and low-quality certifiers, especially since no potential certifiers will have prior experience administering an Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Program?
  • How often will certifiers be reviewed, and under what conditions would the positive recommendation be removed?
  • What does it mean for a certifier to be "recommended" by the Department?
  • How will the Department differentiate between high value and low value credentials?
  • What constitutes "sufficient support and input from sector participants" for potential Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship program certifiers?

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