The IRAPs roadblock

Photo: iStock

A bill to reauthorize the nation’s main apprenticeship law, which hasn’t been revamped in 80 years, passed the House Rules Committee on Tuesday. A House floor debate is expected later this week.

The committee passed H.R. 8294, the National Apprenticeship Act, along party lines. Although Democrats and Republicans both touted apprenticeships as a critical workforce development tool, they couldn’t agree on how much flexibility to give to newer apprenticeship models, such as industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (IRAPs).

The likelihood of Congress passing the bill this year is almost nil, as the Senate doesn’t have a companion version. Many congressional Republicans and the Trump administration oppose the legislation because it focuses only on registered apprenticeships. Democrats aim to reintroduce the bill again in the new Congress, hoping there may be room for a compromise when the current administration departs.

At Tuesday’s virtual hearing, both sides seemed hopeful but not too optimistic. Rep. Susan Davis (D-California), who serves on the House Education and Labor Committee and testified about apprenticeships at the hearing, noted that a manager’s amendment to the bill would reduce the number of required performance data reports for smaller businesses with five or fewer apprentices. It was included to address some concerns brought forth by Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Kentucky), she said.

“I’m glad we were able to come to that agreement,” Davis said.

View the House Rules Committee hearing

However, Davis said Democrats cannot allow “untested” programs such as IRAPs, which Republicans contend would allow interested companies to cut through much bureaucratic red tape and attract more businesses to participate.

“Private businesses are, of course, free to develop programs as they so choose,” Davis said. “They simply will not be able to receive taxpayer dollars for their programs, unless they meet certain clear standards around both performance and transparency,” which registered apprenticeships already do, she said.

Davis added that it’s not about IRAPs, but rather about ensuring that federal funds are “spent wisely” and that apprenticeships follow clear federal guidelines.

“That’s where we have the disagreement,” she said.

A lack of flexibility

Republicans on the committee contended the Democrats’ bill doesn’t modernize programs, encourage innovation or offer flexibility to bring in industries that typically don’t offer apprenticeships. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), who also testified at the hearing, said the bill would only “double down on the problems with an 80-year-old system.”

But Davis said H.R. 8294 would streamline the standards for registered apprenticeships, making it easier for students and employers to participate while ensuring rigor and safety. It also would include stakeholders in helping to expand the apprenticeship model in sectors that haven’t traditionally used them, such as technology, financial services and healthcare. In addition, the bill would aim to expand diversity in such programs by offering more opportunities to women, individuals with disabilities, people affected by the criminal justice system and people of color.

A working partnership

Rep. Norma Torres (D-California) said her district would benefit from H.R. 8294. Local employers in her community are seeking skilled workers in advanced manufacturing. Apprenticeships would offer workers the chance to earn family-sustaining wages in this growing sector.

“The advanced manufacturing industry is an economic lifeblood in my district, but only for those who can get basic skills training through a certification program,” she said.

Torres noted an advanced manufacturing training partnership between Chaffey College and manufacturer California Steel Industries. It used federal dollars to buy required training equipment, with the steel mill providing the space and workers. The community college trained journeymen at the mill, who in turn trained displaced workers seeking employment.

“The program has become so successful that many other businesses have joined in that partnership,” Torres said.

About the Author

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