AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — A steady stream of employers comes to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to talk about how difficult it is to find a skilled workforce, according to John Ladd, head of the DOL’s Office of Apprenticeship.
“We see this every day,” he told the audience at the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Workforce Development Institute (WDI).
There are 7.2 million unfilled jobs – in everything from manufacturing, to water treatment, to 5G telecommunications, Ladd said.
“The inability to find a skilled workforce is limiting their ability to expand their companies,” he said.
But Ladd added that there is a way to solve this problem and create a talent pipeline: apprenticeships.
“Apprenticeships should be in everybody’s toolkit,” he said.
AACC helps to lead the way
DOL set an ambitious goal to create one million new apprenticeships by the end of September 2021 and has committed $20 million to a partnership led by AACC to make that happen.
“There has been a sea change in the federal role to support apprenticeships,” Ladd noted. “We’re reaching the point where will have $1 billion invested in apprenticeships. A few years ago, it was zero. AACC is a key part of that.”
There are about 635,000 active apprenticeships today, Ladd said. That includes about 175,000 workers in federally registered apprenticeship programs in the construction industry; more than 100,000 active members of the military serving as apprentices; and another 200,000 people in state or other apprenticeship programs in non-construction fields, such as information technology, healthcare and manufacturing.
Apprenticeships are especially effective because they are scalable, Ladd said. The programs pay people to learn on the job, guarantee a company a credentialed worker and generate “off-the-chart metrics,” he said.
People who complete an apprenticeship can expect to earn about $75,000 a year, Ladd added, and more than 90 percent of apprentices are retained by the company after they complete the training.
New approaches to apprenticeships
DOL is working on a new way to support industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (IRAPs) as an alternative to federally registered apprenticeships, Ladd said. He anticipates the regulations will be released by the end of April.
In another new initiative, DOL hopes to award a grant for a youth apprenticeship program by June.
“There is a lot of potential in connecting high schools and community colleges and providing career pathways for young people,” Ladd said.
“The traditional definition of apprenticeships has changed dramatically; it’s work-based learning,” said Mary Graham, president Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC) and former chair of the AACC board of directors.
MGCCC is training more than 800 apprentices, mostly for jobs at Ingalls Shipbuilding. When it comes to meeting employers’ immediate needs, “community colleges are going to be the answer” because they are the most flexible, Graham said.
At an earlier session at WDI, Scott Stump, assistant secretary for career, technical and adult education at the U.S. Education Department (ED), said community colleges initially weren’t created to be nimble.
“They were designed to get people into work and not return,” he said. “Now community colleges are the most nimble and best able to react to employers’ immediate needs.”
Stump called for community colleges to embrace apprenticeship programs that award credits that count toward a degree.
Seek Perkins funds
ED provides extensive resources for career and technical education, including the $1.3 billion Perkins program, which was reauthorized last year, said Casey Sacks, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for community colleges. Perkins funds are allocated to states, which decide whether to distribute them to community colleges or K-12 school systems.
States are required to submit their Perkins plans to ED by April, so “this is the perfect time to talk to the state organization that manages Perkins” and encourage it to pass along funds to community colleges, Sacks said. She recommended visiting the Perkins Collaborative Resource Network to find the contact for each state.
There is a myth that students can’t use Perkins grants for non-credit programs, Stump noted. “There is nothing in the law on that,” he said, although students have to be in a for-credit program to receive a Pell grant.
As Congress continues to work on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), Sacks urged community college leaders to advocate for allowing Pell grants for short-term certificate programs and to allow eligible incarcerated individuals to use Pell grants for postsecondary education. Those are key issues on AACC’s advocacy agenda.
ED also would like to see community colleges have more flexibility for work-study programs, Sacks said. This would allow eligible students to get work-study funds for participating in apprenticeships or nursing clinicals, not just campus jobs like working in the library, she said.
In addition, Sacks said, ED supports legislation to provide “education freedom scholarships.” This measure would provide states with funding to allocate to scholarship organizations. The scholarships could be used for students in career and technical education, as well as transportation, tools for clinicals or other needs.
Be a strong advocate
When visiting Washington, D.C., to seek federal funding, “tell a story,” Ladd advised community college leaders.
“We want to hear your challenges,” he said. “We want you to lead; we want you to innovate.”
Preconceived ideas can be an obstacle. For example, just a few years ago, people thought apprenticeships were just for construction jobs, and the idea of community colleges sponsoring or facilitating apprenticeships was unheard of, Ladd said.
Every community college in the country should be involved in apprenticeships in some form, either by hosting classroom instruction, convening employers or doing something new to create “a seamless system that is coherent and makes sense to businesses in your community,” he said.
People who come to Washington “will be less successful if they think I have a bucket of money to give them,” Sacks said.
ED also is reaching out more to rural community colleges, Sacks said. It is planning a meeting of rural colleges to help them attain resources from agencies with larger budgets, such as theDepartment of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation.
Steve Head, chancellor of Lone Star College in Texas, urged college leaders to stay in close contact with business and industry advisory committees to understand their workforce needs. And they need to stay connected with local and federal lawmakers and policymakers, too.
“Most of us believe government, legislatures and colleges should work together, but don’t assume your federal and state legislators know what do to,” Head said. “They want solutions, but you need to tell them what you need.”
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