Apprenticeship programs jointly developed by community colleges and businesses – and scaled up on a nationwide basis – could go a long way toward closing the nation’s skills gap, according to U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta.
“Our job is to ensure America’s workforce is prepared to meet the demands of a global and ever-changing economy,” Acosta told participants on Thursday at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) board of directors summer retreat in Washington, D.C.
AACC could be the “perfect partner” to work on this effort, he said, and AACC President Walter Bumphus agreed to take up the challenge.
The unemployment rate is just 4.3 percent, the lowest it’s been in 17 years, Acosta said, yet there are many people not in the labor force because they lack the appropriate skills.
Seven million people are unemployed, while there are 6.2 million job openings. That mismatch is caused by an “increasing gap between the skills the workforce demands and the education being offered by the college and university system,” he said.
Acosta called for “demand-driven education” that responds to the skills needed by employers.
He pointed to the building trades, which spend $1 billion a year on skills training and asked why that model couldn’t be pushed across all industries.
Noting that there’s a shortage of pharmacy technicians, he suggested bringing pharmacies and community colleges together to create a national apprenticeship program – with 80 percent of the curriculum covering core skills and 20 percent company specific.
AACC board members described several examples of how they are already partnering with companies to develop apprenticeship and other workforce programs.
Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin is working with Snap-on Inc., said President Bryan Albrecht; Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon is working with Boeing, noted President Gregory Hamann; and Paris Junior College in Texas is partnering with Kimberly-Clark, added President Pamela Anglin.
Acosta agreed that colleges are doing a good job individually, but he challenged them to come up with a mechanism to scale up these efforts on a nationwide level. To expand a program from serving hundreds or thousands of students to millions requires “the ability to respond in an agile and collective manner,” he said.
“We need to do this more efficiently,” Acosta said. The education infrastructure needs to be streamlined, so the same curriculum can be used at multiple community colleges.
AACC’s Bumphus agreed to work with the Labor Department on a plan for scaling up apprenticeship programs.
“We want to be that infrastructure,” he said.
Both Bumphus and Acosta noted that the accreditation piece is a challenge.
“It’s my impression that accreditation is sufficiently decentralized to discourage agile actions,” Acosta said.
Another obstacle is the lack of financial aid for short-term training. AACC has proposed expanding the Pell program to provide colleges with additional student aid for certificate programs that are less than 600 hours.
Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County and chair-elect of AACC’s board, called this “one of the most important things the administration could do.”
A clear definition
As the Labor Department implements the executive order on apprenticeship programs issued by President Trump in June, Acosta said workforce boards could play a stronger role in referring people to apprenticeships and asked AACC to propose a mechanism for identifying these programs.
The definition of apprenticeships is broad, he acknowledged. For Acosta, it refers to a program where people are working and attending classes at the same time; involves hands-on, as well as classroom learning; and includes pay for apprentices. He said the department will issue a more precise definition this fall.
Apprenticeship programs shouldn’t be limited to the trades, he said, noting they can involve every occupation from truck drivers to commodities traders.
“The idea that apprenticeships are limited to the trades is a reflection of a deeper issue,” Acosta said. “We need to bring dignity back to all career paths, not just those attached to four-year degrees. ”
“We are prepared to help you and the administration close the skills gap and get unemployed people employed,” said Christine Johnson, chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane (Washington). “That’s what we do every day. We’re ready to work with you.”
“This is great start to a very important relationship,” Acosta said.