IRAPs rule stays much the same

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) will keep as is much of its proposal for an alternative program to registered apprenticeships, which has renewed concerns about the potential for unscrupulous activities, especially among for-profit organizations.

DOL on Tuesday released its final rule pertaining to so-called industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (IRAPs) that it hopes will encourage more companies to provide apprenticeships, especially in new and emerging fields and in sectors that don’t typically offer such paid, work-based learning experiences.

“Apprenticeships are widely recognized to be a highly effective job-training approach for American workers and for employers seeking the skilled workforce needed in today’s changing workplace,” Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said in a press release. “This new rule offers employers, community colleges and others a flexible, innovative way to quickly expand apprenticeship in telecommunications, health care, cybersecurity, and other sectors where apprenticeships currently are not widely available.”

DOL — which received some 326,800 comments on the rule — did clarify, tighten and add some requirements in its rule. For example, IRAPs now have to include written agreements with apprentices, which wasn’t in the proposed rule.

However, much of the final rule remains the same as the proposed rule. DOL, in general, declined to make more specific requirements in the rule, giving organizations that would approve IRAPs plenty of leeway. Critics have argued that so much flexibility could, among other concerns, present conflicts of interest among some participants.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) is reviewing the rule, which will kick in May 11.

 A closer look at SREs

Under the rule, approved third-party organizations — called standards recognition entities (SREs) — will approve IRAPs submitted from various industry sectors. Many different types of entities may become recognized SREs, including trade groups, companies, educational institutions, state and local governments, non-profits, unions, joint labor-management organizations, and certification and accreditation bodies for a profession or industry.

The rule also outlines the responsibilities and requirements for SREs, as well as the department’s standards that programs must meet to obtain and maintain IRAP status, and it sets how the administrator will oversee SREs. Once recognized by DOL, SREs will work with employers and other entities to establish, recognize and monitor high-quality IRAPs that provide apprentices with industry-recognized credentials.

However, several commenters on the rule noted it could allow for potential conflicts of interest. For example, under the rule an organization can serve as an SRE that approves its own IRAP.

Plenty of feedback

IRAPs have been divisive among workforce advocates and even in Congress. Supporters contend they would free employers, especially small- and mid-size businesses, from bureaucratic red tape and allow them to more quickly develop apprenticeships. Meanwhile, opponents argue IRAPs are unproven and could lack rigor and worker safety protections, among other concerns.

Some commenters were concerned that having several SREs within an industry could confuse potential apprentices, employers and sponsors. DOL said it didn’t share that concern, noting multiple SREs would help the system.

“If apprenticeships are to thrive in emerging industries and spread to new and innovative occupational areas, then having multiple SREs within any given industry or state would result in an increase in the number of apprenticeship programs that are able to effectively train individuals for industries and occupations most in need of skilled workers,” DOL said. “In addition, the presence of multiple SREs will provide prospective IRAPs and employers with the opportunity to assess and determine which SRE is best suited to meet the needs of their program.”

Other commenters noted that in 2018 a federal task force on apprenticeships recommended that IRAPs should be tested through a pilot program. But DOL said in its final rule that it is better to scale up apprenticeships quickly for U.S. companies to develop a workforce that allows them to remain globally competitive.

“The Department believes that the problems posed by the current skills gap necessitate the comprehensive implementation of IRAPs, and that a pilot program would by its very nature be insufficient to address the current shortfall of skilled American workers at the scale required,” DOL said.

In its comments on the proposed rule, AACC also noted the task force’s recommendation regarding IRAPs as a pilot program.

“The desire to press forward aggressively with a new form of apprenticeships is understandable but doing so requires the utmost care by DOL and all the other entities involved in this new initiative,” AACC wrote.

The department emphasized that IRAPs are not intended to replace registered apprenticeships but rather to run as a parallel program. It added that it also will continue to streamline processes related to registered apprenticeships to encourage employers to participate in them.

One industry will be excluded from IRAPs: construction. That industry has long-established registered apprenticeships programs and doesn’t need IRAPs, the department said.

 Extra info

More information on IRAPs is on the department’s IRAPs webpage.

View comments on the proposed rule at http://www.regulations.gov by entering docket number ETA–2019–0005.

DOL plans to hold a general webinar on IRAPs on March 26 (register here), and a webinar for prospective SREs and IRAP providers on April 9 (more information to come).

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.