Moving Apprenticeship Forward With Quality: Finding the Right Role for Government

Apr 3, 2017 by

Finding the Right Role for Government

By Mary Alice McCarthy and Brent Parton –

Apprenticeship is a hot topic these days in statehouses – and in Washington D.C. where the White House recently signaled a strong interest.  Whether it’s policymakers wanting more good jobs, employers looking for new talent, or families searching for affordable postsecondary education, almost everyone finds something to like in apprenticeship. But as that excitement moves to action, policymakers eventually have to address a key question that can quickly suck the oxygen out of the room: “are we talking about apprenticeship or registered apprenticeship?”

If you are wondering what the difference is between the two and why it matters – you are not alone. The answer, in a word, is government – and the question is about what role government should play in defining and assuring quality.

What counts as an apprenticeship?

While the concept of apprenticeship is familiar to many Americans, the policy details are not. And there are a lot of details. In fact, there are a host of federal and state policies dating back to the Fitzgerald Act of 1937 that define what an apprenticeship is – and is not. These same policies outline the process through which programs are formally recognized by the government. That process is called “registration” and it ensures that an apprenticeship program meets a set of requirements governing the relationship between the employer and the apprentice. The core requirements include proof that the apprentice will 1) participate in structured, on-the-job learning with a mentor, 2) engage in a minimum of 144 hours of related classroom instruction with qualified instructors, and 3) earn a wage that increases as he or she masters new skills. Apprentices who complete a registered apprenticeship program are awarded a nationally recognized certificate by the U.S. Department of Labor.

But registration doesn’t mean the government can keep anyone from calling their training program an apprenticeship. And that’s why stakeholders in the apprenticeship community distinguish between “registered” and “non-registered” apprenticeship. The former meets the set of legal requirements set out by the Fitzgerald Act designed to protect apprentices and ensure the quality of the education and training they receive. The latter is a wild west of programs of highly variable quality. Some non-registered programs may look almost identical to a registered apprenticeship, just without the government recognition. In some cases though, the term apprenticeship can be used to refer to anything from an unpaid internship to job-shadowing.

As state and federal policymakers think seriously about expanding apprenticeship, they must be clear on whether they are referring only to registered apprenticeship. If they are, they will inevitably hear from a small but committed group of stakeholders that registration is a barrier to growing apprenticeship and that they should either get rid of it or bypass it. They shouldn’t listen.

Registration and its discontents

As with just about anything government does to ensure quality and protect consumers, registration has tradeoffs. On the positive side, it is the only tool we have for ensuring that programs advertising themselves as apprenticeships meet baseline standards of quality and that the apprentices enjoy basic labor protections. It also allows us to ensure public investments in apprenticeship, like state tax credits or federal student aid, flow toward vetted programs. Finally, it is the only way to collect accurate data on the size, scope, and performance of our national apprenticeship system. Without registration, we would know very little about who our apprentices are and how they fare after their programs.

As with just about anything government does to ensure quality and protect consumers, registration has tradeoffs.

But here’s the tradeoff: the process of registering a program can be time-consuming and cumbersome for employers, particularly for small and medium-sized firms. It can also require significant changes to how a company recruits and develops its employees, including new HR processes and staffing policies. Those changes may be beneficial in the long-term, but that doesn’t make them easy. Finally, registration requirements may seem ill suited to new and emerging industries, like information technology, where occupations and skills demands change rapidly and competencies, not seat-time, are increasingly the coin of the realm. In short, the registration process – particularly the first time around – can mean a big lift for businesses.

Luckily, there are a number of ways that policymakers can make registration more appealing and less cumbersome. First, policymakers can sweeten the deal for employers by linking registration to financial incentives such as tax credits and tuition assistance. The federal government already does that with a number of higher education and workforce programs including the Pell grant, Federal Work Study, the GI Bill, and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. States and cities can also use a variety of local programs and procurement policies toward similar ends.

Second, federal and state apprenticeship agencies can reduce the burden simply by taking steps to streamline the process. Today the federal government registers programs in half of all states, and in the rest, state apprenticeship agencies do it on the federal government’s behalf.  More standardization and embrace of best practices across states in terms of policies and processes can offer a more consistent, and better, customer service experience and ensure companies operating in more than one state do not have to register twice. Federal and state apprenticeship agencies could also take steps to better leverage technology to reduce paperwork, streamline communication with employers, and open-source registration forms and national program templates so that no employer has to start registration from scratch.

Finally, federal and state policymakers can create incentives for employers to join forces and develop programs together. It is possible to register a single apprenticeship program for multiple employers at once. In fact, that’s generally how small Swiss and German companies develop their apprenticeships, precisely to avoid the cost of each doing it on their own.  Industry associations, community colleges, and workforce boards are showing they can help, including developing shared curricula and helping pool resources to pay for the related classroom instruction.

If registration works here, it can work anywhere

Over the last ten years, South Carolina has been doing a combination of all the above, and with great success. Since 2007, the state has managed to grow the number of federally Registered Apprenticeship programs by more than 700 percent – and this in a state where business is famously wary of the federal intrusion. They did it by introducing a small apprenticeship tax credit that employers could access only if they registered their program. Then they created an office within their technical college system dedicated to promoting apprenticeship and helping companies register their programs. They also helped companies network with one another, share resources, and build a community of practice. The tax credit was the bait, but if you ask folks in South Carolina what made the effort so successful, you will invariably hear that it was the marketing campaign and hands-on assistance with program development and registration that made the difference.

Ideas for Moving Forward (Yes, talking about registered apprenticeship…)

No matter how much government streamlines the registration process, the first time around is likely to be a lift for some employers. That’s not because registration is too onerous, it’s because implementing an apprenticeship program can require significant changes inside a company. But companies should not have to walk that journey alone and need access to supports throughout the process.

Moving forward, a simple goal for federal and state policymakers should be to make it easier for companies to register their apprenticeship programs. Calls to eliminate registration all together, under the guise that it imposes too much of a burden on companies, are simply not credible. Too many companies – including  small ones and those in new industry sectors – navigate the registration process successfully to support the claim that it is holding the field back. Learning from South Carolina, the federal government and states should continue to partner and build needed capacity on the ground – part sales team and part customer support – to lower start-up costs, and help companies register their programs with as little fuss as possible. In 2016, Congress appropriated $90 million to strengthen the capacity of states and industry associations to do just that. Continued Congressional funding can help ensure those efforts continue and succeed.

Learning from South Carolina, the federal government and states should continue to partner and build needed capacity on the ground – part sales team and part customer support – to lower start-up costs, and help companies register their programs with as little fuss as possible.

A second clear goal for policymakers should be to make registration not just easier, but more responsive to the needs of new and emerging industries. The Department of Labor is already exploring how competency-based approaches to training and certification can be better integrated into existing registration processes so that programs can be shorter and nimbler. These efforts should continue and be expanded.

The process of registering an apprenticeship program can seem time-consuming and meddlesome to some employers, but it provides a crucial lever for government to ensure programs are high quality, that apprentices are well-protected, and that our apprenticeship system is connected to larger efforts to strengthen America’s workforce and economy. Like most things the government does, registration can certainly be updated and improved upon – and that should be the focus moving forward.

Source: Moving Apprenticeship Forward With Quality: Finding the Right Role for Government

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