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Opinion | Why we can’t have nice things: President Biden’s hostile apprenticeship takeover

Just as we have gotten a good thing going, now is not the time to reverse that progress.

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Apprenticeships are one of the earliest and most productive forms of learning. Think of the historical figures who began their careers as apprentices: Jesus was a carpenter’s apprentice, Paul Revere was a silversmith’s apprentice, and George Washington was a surveyor’s apprentice. Like many of the attempts to “improve” the other natural aspects of civil society, such as faith and family, government interventions to “improve” apprenticeships are having the opposite effect. 

The USDOL Office of Apprenticeship (OA) oversaw apprenticeship in Alabama from 1937 until 2019. In that time, job seekers and employers were unable to fully access the benefits of apprenticeship thanks to USDOL OA’s “compliance-first” mindset and limited customer service. 

Governor Ivey established the Alabama Office of Apprenticeship (AOA) in 2019. At that time, no state had applied to become a State Apprenticeship Agency (SAA) in over 25 years. There are 32 states using the SAA model today. Tennessee and Colorado followed Alabama’s lead, and more states from Arkansas to Iowa are working through the process of becoming recognized as a SAA.  

The AOA is currently meeting the training needs of more than 331 Alabama employers. The most recent quarterly report from the AOA shows that newly expanded apprenticeship programs have an average starting wage of $20.63 per hour. Furthermore, the AOA has more than doubled the percentage of females participating in apprenticeships from less than 7 percent when they took over to 18.65 percent at the close of 2023. 

In an extreme form of a “Friday afternoon news dump,” just before the holidays, the Biden Administration, through the U.S. Department of Labor, issued a 779-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on December 14, 2023. The NPRM is an egregious example of administrative overreach. When people talk about the “D.C. swamp” of faceless bureaucrats running the country by executive fiat, this is what they are talking about. 

The federal apprenticeship system was established in 1937 through the two-page National Apprenticeship Act, also known as the Fitzgerald Act. Over the years, Congress allowed the executive branch to establish a maze of hundreds of pages of regulations under Parts 29 and 30 of the Code of Federal Regulations to “interpret” the National Apprenticeship Act. The December 2023 NPRM is the next saga in the quest for the administrative state to usurp Congressional authority by creating new rules governing apprenticeship that have the force of law. 

As Ryan Craig stated in the “Gap Letter,” the U.S. Department of Labor and many advocacy groups, such as New America, are doing the “safety dance” on apprenticeship to keep apprenticeships restricted to the fields that are already dominating the field. The overwhelming majority of apprenticeships are in the traditional skilled trades commonly associated with the time-based training model. This model has worked in those industries for decades and Alabama has thousands of people learning valuable skills this way. Even with its proven effectiveness, a time-based apprenticeship doesn’t make sense in every industry. 

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The competency-based model of training has become Alabama’s bread and butter for apprenticeship expansion. With competency-based programs, the apprentice training is measured based on their ability to demonstrate proficiency in the skills required for the job. The USDOL OA proposes to force a time-component into the competency model, potentially slowing the apprentice’s career growth and increasing employer burden. The NPRM justifies this change by stating that apprentices need at least a year to become safely proficient in an occupation. This one-size-fits all approach is counterintuitive and is a perfect example of agency overreach. Why might the federal agency responsible for apprenticeship want to implement rules that would hinder the expansion of apprenticeship?

The answer seems to be to restrict apprenticeships to fields that currently dominate apprenticeship. The fact that President Biden acted to reverse the industry-driven approach to apprenticeship testifies to this Administration’s hostility to expanding apprenticeship to new fields. Another reason the Biden administration is attempting to implement these rules is even simpler: power. Just as states are taking ownership of their own apprenticeship programs through SAAs like the Alabama Office of Apprenticeship, the USDOL is trying to regain a greater level of control. 

Just as we have gotten a good thing going, now is not the time to reverse that progress because a group of bureaucrats with an agenda in DC decided to issue a 779-page regulation. The most troubling aspect of the NPRM is that no one gets to vote on it. Once it goes through a required comment period, it will be finalized and will have the force of law unless repealed by Congress. 

I encourage you to comment on the NPRM to memorialize mass resistance to this wrong-headed policy. Please voice your concerns at http://tinyurl.com/3hn5szra 

The Alabama Workforce Council is comprised of business executives from some of the most important industries and organizations in the state of Alabama. The Council’s goal is to facilitate collaboration between government and industry to help Alabama develop a sustainable, top-notch workforce that is competitive on a global scale. Since its inception, the Council has been committed to analyzing important issues related to workforce development and making sound recommendations that will help to create more and better opportunities for all Alabamians.

Tim McCartney, formerly of McCartney Construction in Gadsden, is the Chairman of the Alabama Workforce Council.  To learn more about the Council, visit www.alabamaworks.com.

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