House Dems query Acosta about IRAPs

U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta testifies Wednesday before the House Education and Labor Committee.

House Democrats continue to question whether industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (IRAPs) can offer the same quality, wages, career opportunities and worker protections as federally registered apprenticeships.

During a House Education and Labor Committee hearing Wednesday that featured U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta outlining his department’s priorities, Democrats criticized the Trump administration’s efforts to use IRAPs to expand apprenticeships.

Committee Chair Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) said the plan “seeks to expand untested workforce training programs at the expense of proven, high-quality apprenticeships.” He added that IRAPs are “not accountable to quality standards that protect the interests of workers and taxpayers.”

Several other Democrats questioned whether IRAPs would follow similar pay increases for advancements in typical registered apprenticeships and whether workers would have similar protections to ensure safe working environments. They noted that the government should have a role in approving quality standards for such programs.

Acosta responded that current laws already afford such protections for IRAPs. He also explained that 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.

“This should not be limited to building trades,” Acosta said.

Offering alternatives

The secretary added that the process of having an apprenticeship program registered is often too burdensome and expensive for many small- and medium-size companies. IRAPs are not intended to replace registered apprenticeships, but they can provide an alternative for such businesses and their potential employees to benefit from the apprenticeship model, he said.

Several Republicans noted that IRAPs could supplement registered apprenticeships in efforts to prepare more workers for available jobs.

“Both can be extremely valuable for what we need,” said Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Michigan).

Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pennsylvania) noted that third-party organizations that approve IRAPs would be similar to accrediting agencies that approve colleges in ensuring the quality of their programs.

Job Corps Scholars pilot program

Democrats also criticized Acosta for saying the administration is focused on improving workforce development while the president’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year would cut the Labor Department’s funding by 10 percent, or $1.2 billion.

“Our economy increasingly demands and rewards high-skilled employees, but the president’s proposed budget cuts fall hardest on workforce development programs that provide workers a path to financial security,” said Scott, noting the proposed 41 percent cut to Job Corps funding and 16 percent cut to the Reentry Employment Opportunities Program, which provides a second chance to formerly incarcerated individuals.

Acosta said providing more funding toward programs doesn’t guarantee their success, and the department aims to better target its funding on programs that are innovative and show promise. He cited a Job Corps Scholars pilot program announced Wednesday that will provide up to 20 grants mainly to community colleges to serve 1,600 at-risk youths. Funding will cover students’ tuition and other expenses, and also allow colleges to hire personal and career counselors to help these students.

Acosta also highlighted the department’s $150 million program to test sector-based approaches to apprenticeships in key industries, including healthcare and technology. Federal funding will come from fees collected through the HB-1 program and could be used for job training, including apprenticeships, he said.

The department will soon announce which proposals it will fund through the program. Participating educational institutions will be require to secure matching funds from business partners, Acosta said.

“That’s not just about the dollars. It’s about having the value of a business partner in workforce education,” he said.

About the Author

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