Analysis: What the House Democrats’ draft bill to modernize apprenticeship means for workers and businesses

By Katie Spiker, March 04, 2020

On March 3rd, Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment, Representative Susan Davis (D-CA) released a discussion draft of a bill to reauthorize the National Apprenticeship Act (NAA), which would authorize significant new funding to expand apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship, and youth apprenticeship in the United States. The NAA has never been substantively updated, since being enacted more than eighty years ago. The U.S. also has drastically lower rates of apprenticeship utilization compared to international peers, although there has been important progress towards expanding apprenticeship in recent years.

Congress has also steadily increased appropriations for apprenticeship over the past five years – evidence of bipartisan interest in the workforce strategy. This discussion draft is an important first step towards both modernizing apprenticeship and providing Congress the opportunity to put scaffolding around how the Department of Labor spends the increasing appropriations.

Even though the discussion draft isn’t bipartisan, it represents discussions between Education and Labor committee Democrats and Republicans. It also includes elements of several bipartisan bills, including those with strong support from National Skills Coalition.

The bill, for example, supports local partnerships between businesses, education and training providers, human service organizations, and labor and labor management partnerships, consistent with the bipartisan PARTNERS Act, introduced by Representatives Bonamici (D-OR), Ferguson (R-GA), Davis (D-CA) and Guthrie (R-KY). These partnerships are critical to expanding apprenticeship and bringing together entities with the knowledge, experience and ability to best serve workers and businesses, and leverage new and existing public investments in apprenticeship. Recent national polling shows that 92 percent of voters and 77 percent of businesses support bringing together industry and local practitioners to train local residents for in-demand jobs.

The bill also prioritizes access to pre-apprenticeship, support services, and post-employment supports consistent with the bipartisan BUILDS Act, introduced by Representatives Mitchell (R-MI), Bonamici (D-OR), Thompson (R-PA) and Langevin (D-RI). More than 80 percent of voters support increasing government funding for support services to help people finish skills training programs and 64 percent of businesses say this will help their businesses.

Finally, the bill is consistent with many of the priorities set forward by the Apprentices Forward Collaborative – a network of national organizations, including NSC, committed to expanding apprenticeship – in our Definition and Principles for Expanding Quality Apprenticeship in the U.S. These principles were developed in partnership with fourteen other national organizations.

Bill details

As currently drafted, the NAA provides significant deference to the Secretary of Labor to promulgate rules necessary to support the expansion of apprenticeship programs. The current National Apprenticeship Act is about a six-paragraph instruction for the Secretary of Labor to promote and further standards of apprenticeship. Given this brevity, most of the governance of apprenticeship comes through state apprenticeship agencies (found in half of the states) and the Department of Labor’s regulatory language.

The discussion draft would codify both existing regulations and practical components of how apprenticeship has evolved over the past eighty years. It would also authorize funding to support the administration and expansion of apprenticeship – up to $400 million in Fiscal Year 2021 and $800 million by FY2025 for grants and contracts to partnerships between workforce and education stakeholders.

Program administration

The bill includes language from the regulations currently governing registered apprenticeship, including components of defining which occupations are appropriate to be registered, the role of the Federal sub-agency in the Employment and Training Administration with jurisdiction over apprenticeship, the Office of Apprenticeship, and state level State Apprenticeship Agencies to both administer and oversee registered apprenticeship programs.

Title I of the discussion draft includes authorized appropriations of $75 million to states to run state apprenticeship agencies and $50 million to the Office of Apprenticeship for federal oversight and technical assistance.

States would be required to use 10 percent of allocated funding to support alignment with both the public workforce system and education system.

Apprenticeship for the 21st Century Grants

Title II of the bill would direct the Administrator of the Office of Apprenticeship to award grants, contracts or agreements to support at least one of four main goals:

  1. Creating or expanding apprenticeship in new industries, existing apprenticeship programs, pre-apprenticeship, and youth apprenticeship;
  2. Engaging employers in apprenticeship, specifically small and mid-size employers,
  3. Support industry intermediaries; and
  4. Align the apprenticeship system with secondary and postsecondary education.

Applicants for each would be partnerships between state or local workforce boards, education and training providers, a state apprenticeship agency, an Indian Tripe or organization, and industry or sector partnership, a Governor, labor organization associated with the occupation of the program, or a qualified intermediary.

Recipients of grant funds would be required to support outreach, recruitment, and retention strategies for program participants, including supportive services and direct financial support. Recipients will also be required to engage with industry partners and other workforce stakeholders – including workforce boards – to establish industry or sector partnerships.

There are also a broad set of allowable activities under the grants through which recipients could use funding for other services to ensure workers can not only access apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship and youth apprenticeship programs but also succeed in those programs.

Next steps

The Democrats’ discussion draft will be the subject of a bipartisan hearing in the Higher Education Subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee on Wednesday March 4th. If committee members are able to negotiate across the aisle to a bipartisan bill before formal introduction, there may be a small window of opportunity – as members continue to approach the 2020 elections and significant time out of DC over the next few months – for bicameral conversations about progress on an apprenticeship bill.

Given the compressed Congressional timeline because of the elections, and competing priorities, like reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, within the committees of jurisdiction, the bill faces an unlikely, but possible, path forward this Congress.

At the same time, the Trump administration is expected to release their final rule implementing a new Industry Recognized Apprenticeship system, which is intended to stand alongside registered apprenticeship programs. The Industry-recognized system would reduce the oversight role of the Department of Labor, instead creating a system of Standard Recognizing Entities (SREs) who would recognize programs. DOL would then have oversight of these SREs.

The discussion draft does not include any reference to industry-recognized programs, but the timing of the draft and impending final rule means Republicans in the House or Senate may not be willing to negotiate any apprenticeship modernization prior to release – and potentially implementation – of a final rule from the administration.

National Skills Coalition looks forward to working with our partners across the country to inform and move forward legislation that supports local workforce and education stakeholder efforts to help workers access in-demand skills and meet industry needs of the 21st century.