More Manufacturing Apprenticeships Could Help Fill the Skills Gap

President Trump recently signed an executive order to promote apprenticeship programs as a way to help young people find jobs, and to fill the skills gap in industries like manufacturing.

The order will boost the amount of funding of such programs from $90 million to $200 million. Nicholas Wyman, CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation, said that it is cause for optimism that Trump will significantly improve the number and quality of apprenticeships in the economy. He said it will be a “boon to employers” because it will reduce red tape and overly rigid requirements for administering such programs.

“Employers will undoubtedly respond positively to these changes and it will encourage them to embrace apprenticeships…Successful apprenticeship programs work best when designed by employers around their own needs,” Wyman said.

The order also will move the role of developing government-funded apprenticeship programs from the Labor Department to third-party private entities such as businesses, trade groups and labor unions. Trump said during the announcement that federal regulations have “prevented many different industries from creating apprenticeship programs.”

“Successful apprenticeship programs work best when designed by employers around their own needs.”

Not everyone agrees, however. Chris Lu, former deputy Labor Secretary, tweeted that the executive order will “remove [government] oversight of apprenticeship standards, which will reduce quality” and that the new investments would require a shift in funding from other training programs.

And regardless of how they’re funded or overseen, there’s little denying the United States is falling well behind other industrialized nations in the use of apprenticeships. Wyman said that the United States would need approximately 5 million apprenticeships to be on par with countries like Germany and Switzerland.

As an example, Germany has an exceptionally high level of skilled workers and a low youth unemployment rate. The country’s vocational training program caters to roughly 60% of the young population and is funded by both businesses and the government, the Financial Times reported. Based on its nationally-recognized qualifications, Germany is currently helping 18 countries around the world set up their own apprenticeship programs.

Yet experts caution that programs here could face challenges. Susanne Burger, deputy head of international cooperation at the German ministry of education and research, said there needs to be “strong cooperation” between government, the business community and social partners. She said it would also require something the United States may be lacking—a strong interest in, and respect for, the skilled trades.

Many manufacturers are already struggling to find talent, and 2 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled in the next 10 years. Such programs can be a cost-effective way for companies to secure talent. At company-sponsored apprenticeship programs, workers learn in the classroom at a community college and on the job for three to four years before graduating.

Robert Lerman, fellow at the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute, said the order is a “good start” toward moving away from less-effective programs and toward shifting policy to apprenticeships. He feels, however, that there needs to be a framework to ensure apprenticeships allow for portability but also can be tailored to meet individual employers’ needs. “Ideally, the federal government would join with the private sector to create a public-private institution charged with developing and diffusing national occupational frameworks for apprenticeship,” Lerman said.