Senate Democrats this week voiced their opposition to a proposed rule allowing federal funding for new “industry-recognized apprenticeship programs” (IRAPs), which would run alongside federally registered apprenticeships.
The 43 Democrats echoed previous concerns they have raised this year, arguing that IRAPs don’t provide the worker protections and benefits that registered programs do, and they would circumvent quality standards with minimal accountability. (House Democrats also have questioned Department of Labor officials on the issue.)
In a letter this week to Acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella, the lawmakers said the proposed rule would create a parallel system that outsources the secretary’s statutory role of overseeing registered apprenticeship programs to “unaccountable, nongovernmental entities.”
“We oppose the Department’s efforts to water down the quality of apprenticeship programs by removing worker protections, lowering the quality of credentials and training, and providing federal funds to unaccountable organizations to provide unproven training,” the letter said.
The Democrats asked the Department of Labor (DOL) to extend the comment period — which ended Monday — by 60 days. The department has turned down previous requests to extend the comment period for this proposed rule, saying the initial 60 days was reasonable and adequate. DOL has received more than 320,000 comments on the proposed rule.
Safeguards in place
In announcing its proposed rule this summer, DOL said so-called “standards recognition entities” (SREs) would have the capacity and quality-assurance processes and procedures needed to monitor IRAPs. The department noted its criteria for high-quality IRAPs would include paid work, work-based learning, mentorship, education and instruction, industry-recognized credentials, safety and supervision, and equal employment opportunity obligations.
A panel of reviewers from DOL’s Apprenticeship Office and contractors from the credentialing industry would evaluate SRE applications. The department noted that a similar relationship already exists between the U.S. Department of Education and higher education accrediting bodies.
Earlier this month, Pizzella outlined for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) board of directors the growth of apprenticeships nationally, and that he expected more growth once IRAPs began. The Trump administration has made apprenticeships a central part of its efforts to ramp up the number of U.S. skilled workers.
Proponents of IRAPs have argued that current labor laws already afford worker protections for IRAPs. And while registered apprenticeships have worked very well in traditional industries, such as construction and the building trades, they have not expanded into other growing industries, such as coding, high technology, health care and advanced manufacturing.
In AACC’s submitted comments on the proposed rule, President and CEO Walter Bumphus noted that how well IRAPs ultimately serve the needs of employees and employers rests in large part on their implementation.
DOL “must be stringent” in assuring that SREs are “truly in the best position to approve and monitor IRAPs programs that are worthy of the term ‘apprenticeship,’” said Bumphus, who served on the federal Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion.
The task force last year included IRAPs in its recommendations to expand the use of apprenticeships, though it called for testing the new apprenticeship model through a pilot program.