Congress Continues Apprenticeship Momentum

Budget Deal Builds on Last Year’s Historic Funding. Here’s What It’ll Buy.
Blog Post
Flickr Creative Commons/Photos by Clark
May 2, 2017

There’s more good news for apprenticeship.  

Congress’s last-minute budget deal includes $95 million to continue funding “innovative” approaches to expanding apprenticeship in new and high-growth industries. That’s a $5 million increase over last year’s historic $90 million investment, signaling continued bipartisan interest in growing apprenticeship as the Trump Administration contemplates its own strategies for expansion.   

Folks more accustomed to reading about billions of dollars in higher education or defense spending may wonder, what’s all the hubbub over just $95 million? The answer is capacity.

The bulk of the education and training costs of apprenticeship programs are borne by employers — to get more employers to commit to apprenticeship, they need help. However, after decades of little to no public investment in apprenticeship, capacity to help employers is thin, particularly for those looking to start programs in industries that are newer-comers to apprenticeship like information technology, advanced manufacturing, healthcare, and financial services.

Following up on last year's investment, this new funding aims to deliver by building the capacity of states and national organizations to engage employers and make it easier for them to start and manage apprenticeship programs soup to nuts (or from paperwork to recruitment).

So while $95 million may seem modest by the standards of other federal education investments, it provides leverage to a lot more private money going to national workforce development - and could lead to more employers integrating apprenticeships into their current and future talent strategies once they're started up.

In terms of whose capacity exactly these funds will build, like last year’s set of investments, the Department of Labor will likely distribute the money through grants to both states and national “intermediary” organizations.

The lion’s share of last year’s funding--just over $60 million--went to states, 37 of whom who received grants ranging from $700,000 to $2.7 million to develop and implement multi-year strategies for expanding apprenticeship. Those strategies outlined state-led efforts to build apprenticeship systems that can serve as a platform for expansion, including building a dedicated apprenticeship sales force to market to and support employers, and devising incentive programs as well as system reforms to mainstream apprenticeship within state education and workforce systems. With this year’s new funding, the Department may choose to put more money into these existing state strategies, offer it for competition among the remaining states and territories currently without grants, or even both.

In addition to state investments, last year the Department awarded over $20 million to national “intermediary” organizations to achieve two objectives: to help employers start more apprenticeship programs in high-growth and new industries, and to connect underrepresented populations—like women and minorities—to apprenticeship opportunities. These intermediary organizations represent a growing, diverse field of players that have demonstrated an ability to work with employers to start apprenticeship programs, from industry associations like the Washington Technology Industry Association, to post-secondary education institutions like North Carolina A&T State University, to civil rights organizations like the National Urban League and labor unions like the AFL-CIO. The Department will likely continue to experiment with this diversity of national organizations that can support employers in the development of apprenticeship programs at scale.

Like starting an apprenticeship program, building new capacity to support the expansion of apprenticeship—whether it’s through state strategies or national intermediaries—can take time. This follow-up investment by Congress in those state and national efforts sends a strong message to employers and education institutions weighing the decision to try something new and get into the apprenticeship game.

But there remains a question as to whether such funds, subject to the annual whims of Congressional appropriators, can stimulate a prolonged shift from experimentation to the realization of apprenticeship as a more universally viable option for preparing and connecting Americans to careers. That seems unlikely without a companion effort to find a sustainable financing scheme for apprenticeship that not only supports the capacity of intermediaries indefinitely, but also incents employers to work together to pool resources, spread risk, and shape the delivery of education and training at scale.

In the coming days, much attention will be on where the Trump Administration and Congress disagree on this budget deal, but exploring a systemic apprenticeship financing option to match ramped-up apprenticeship ambitions for the future offers an area for potential common ground. Such a joint endeavor would not only keep up the momentum of the moment for apprenticeship, but also send a powerful signal: that if industry is willing to commit to invest in apprenticeship as a forward-looking skills solution, it has a committed, long-haul partner in the federal government.

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