Scalia questioned about apprenticeships

Eugene Scalia fields questions from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee during his nomination hearing to serve as U.S. labor secretary. (Image: Screenshot of hearing streamed online)

Eugene Scalia, President Trump’s choice for U.S. labor secretary, told a Senate committee on Thursday that he is aware of concerns raised about so-called industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (IRAPs) and that he would — much like with other issues addressed at the hearing — give it a closer look, if confirmed.

The topic of apprenticeships, both IRAPs and traditional registered apprenticeships, were addressed among myriad issues — from workplace safety and minimum wage, to pensions and LGBTQ rights — during Scalia’s nomination hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was the first to ask him about IRAPs. She noted that some employers say the process to federally approve registered apprenticeships is burdensome and time-consuming, while some unions have expressed concerns about the program rigor and safety under IRAPs. She noted that unions in her state’s construction industry, in particular, are opposed to IRAPs.

“I am concerned that some employers may see IRAPs as taxpayer-funded training programs that fit their needs but perhaps will not provide employees with the high-quality skills that we recognize are needed,” she said.

Scalia acknowledged those concerns and said that he would keep them in mind as the Labor Department goes through its rule-making process to develop IRAPs.

“Those are important considerations that need careful attention as the Labor Department moves forward,” he said. “If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed, I know that is one of the very important things that will on my plate, and what the public has to say in that process is going to be important to strike the right balance.”

Alternatives to four-year degrees

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) asked Scalia about his thoughts regarding jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. The former Massachusetts governor said not enough is being done to encourage students to consider career paths that don’t need a baccalaureate.

“There are other ways that can be invaluable to people entering the workforce and to filling the skills gap in the economy,” Scalia replied, adding that President Trump has helped to raise awareness about that, especially through apprenticeships.

Not enough support

Sens. Murkowski, Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) cited the importance of workforce development in filling available jobs in their states. Rosen said there is currently $24 billion worth of construction projects in southern Nevada, and the industry is begging for skilled workers. And although the Trump administration has touted the value of registered apprenticeships, it has not supported them financially.

“The president only requested $160 million for the office of apprenticeship, only a small increase, and we need to help our businesses develop new skills so we can continue to grow our communities,” she said.

Rosen added that the Labor Department also hasn’t properly staffed the registered apprenticeship program. Six state office apprenticeship director positions are vacant, including one in Nevada, she said.

Scalia — a labor, employment and regulatory attorney who previously served in the U.S. Labor Department — said he would look into the matter, if confirmed.

The HELP committee plans to vote on Scalia’s nomination on September 24.

About the Author

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