Trump wants more apprentices. But can they fix America’s big jobs problem?
U.S. unemployment rate hits 16-year low
President Trump is trying to focus this week on one thing: Jobs, jobs and more jobs.
The White House is dubbing it "workforce development week" and has filled the president’s schedule with workplace visits, speeches and roundtable discussions on the subject. The aim is to present a fix to a big U.S. problem: job skills.
What’s clear: Trump wants to make a big commitment to expand apprenticeship programs.
What’s unclear: How his budget will pay for it and whether apprenticeships alone can fix the country’s massive job skills gap.
Trump’s budget proposal allocates $90 million for grants to apprenticeships, but it slashes funding for current job training programs by $1.1 billion, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.
President Obama allocated the same amount of money for apprenticeships last year.
But beyond funding, experts say that size and scale of what is required present their own challenges. There are 6.8 million unemployed Americans actively looking for a job. There were only 450,000 apprentices last year, excluding those in military apprenticeships, and the average program had 24 apprentices.
"You have to create a lot of programs, double or quadruple, before apprenticeships become a lever that’s really scalable in helping us to close the skills gap," says David Blake, CEO of Degreed, an education technology firm.
All sides agree: The U.S. needs to better train its workers. There were 6 million job openings in April, a record high. About 95% of employers say they’re having difficulty finding skilled and available workers, according to a recent survey by Business Roundtable.
Experts are encouraged by the administration’s plan to invest in apprenticeships, but caution that they aren’t the only solution to train workers.
"We’re excited that the momentum on apprenticeships continues," says Eric Seleznow, former deputy assistant secretary at the Labor Department under Obama and an adviser at the nonprofit Jobs for the Future. "Apprenticeship is great, but it’s not the only tool in the toolbox."
Seleznow argues that apprenticeships are best for workers with some skills and educational background, but for those lacking basic skills, job training programs tend to offer more classroom time.
The number of apprentices fell from 488,000 in 2003 to 285,000 in 2012. But that number rose back up to 450,000 by last year, in part due to the bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
Historically, job training programs had a bad legacy. The Labor Department’s own 2012 study concluded that a job training program was ineffective for workers who have their jobs shipped overseas. It didn’t place workers in jobs they wanted and the jobs they did get often paid far less than their previous ones.
White House officials say the current setup for job training programs doesn’t make sense: There are 31 different job training programs across 14 government agencies.
Despite the checkered history, job training and apprenticeships appeared to turn the corner after Republicans and Democrats passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014.
It provided federal funding for new types of apprenticeships and job training where local employers organize with community colleges and job training programs to identify the skills needed for nearby jobs.
Some programs have had lots of success. Per Scholas is a job training program in six cities, including Atlanta, Dallas and Cleveland. About 80% of its graduates are placed in a job within four months of finishing.
Apprenticeship Carolina, a state-run program, develops apprenticeship programs for employers at no cost for them. It’s received lots of praise, including from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.
Nationwide, apprenticeship programs have increased to 21,339 last year from 19,260 in 2014. Still, back in 2001 there were over 33,000 programs.