Opportunities in a workforce crisis

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh testified Tuesday before the House Education and Labor Committee about the department's policies and priorities. (Screenshot from streamed event)

Employers in nearly all industries are scrambling to find workers, which has many members of Congress concerned about its potential effects on the U.S. economy. But Labor Secretary Marty Walsh sees a potential to help workers leaving their jobs to transition into better-paying ones.

The workforce upheaval brought on by the Covid pandemic and subsequent challenges is an opportunity to upskill or teach workers skills needed for a new career path, Walsh said at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing on Tuesday. The Biden administration sees registered apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships as a key component of its workforce development strategy, he said, noting the president’s fiscal year 2023 budget request seeks $303 million for apprenticeships.

Related article: Walsh focuses on apprenticeships in approps hearing

But Walsh stressed that it isn’t the Department of Labor’s (DOL) job to create those training programs; its job is to support the programs developed by partnerships that include business and industry, community colleges, workforce development board and others to determine what jobs are locally available and what skills they need. DOL should be a “pass-through” to get partners together, he said.

“When I was the mayor of Boston, and the secretary of labor comes in to tell me how to run my city, I don’t think I would be too welcome to it,” he said. “But if they came in to offer support to our workforce development people, I would welcome that input.”

Reaching underserved populations

During the four-hour hearing, Walsh reiterated several times that he sees apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships as career paths into industries that haven’t traditionally had opportunities for underserved populations, including people of color and women. He noted that while the nation’s unemployment rate is 3.4%, it is 6.2% among African Americans. Apprenticeships can help lower that figure, he said.

Pre-apprenticeships are a particularly good way to let individuals gauge whether a career in a certain field would be a good fit before companies sign them to longer, more expensive apprenticeship programs, Walsh said. He cited apprenticeship programs in the U.S. and in Europe, including a paid Volkswagen pre-apprenticeship program in Germany for youths were are 16 to 18 years old. He said the U.S. should duplicate those successful programs.

“We’re in a unique moment in time,” Walsh said.

As he stated in other workforce-related hearings over the past year, Walsh also emphasized DOL wants to see apprenticeships expand into industries that haven’t traditionally offered apprenticeships, such as IT and retail.

More business involvement

Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pennsylvania), a well-known supporter of career and technical education, said he would like to see the registered apprenticeships give employers more flexibility and say in those programs. Walsh observed business and industry do have a voice, as do community colleges, labor, workforce development boards and other stakeholders that have representatives on DOL’s Advisory Committee on Apprenticeship. Last month, the group sent Walsh a draft report on how to strengthen registered apprenticeships.

Next week, DOL will host an event that will include representatives from business, government and other stakeholders to discuss creating better career pathways, Walsh said. He added that he welcomed an opportunity to talk further with Thompson to hear his ideas.

“We cannot miss this opportunity,” Walsh said.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) brought up the issue of equity in apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs. Walsh said pre-apprenticeship programs are particularly important to open those opportunities to different communities. He noted two pre-apprenticeship programs in the construction field that he helped to create in Massachusetts. They not only were paid pre-apprenticeships, but they also provided participants with tools, boots and more. That was crucial to their success, he said.

“We’re taking people off the street that we are trying to open up a whole new world for, and they don’t have the money to buy a pair of work boots, and they certainly don’t have time to take off of their job — usually making minimum wage — to go to a pre-apprentice program,” Walsh said.

Funding community colleges

Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pennsylvania) noted the implications that the skilled worker shortages can have on implementing new laws such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last fall. Walsh noted job training efforts can help, but they require strong business participation.

Wild lauded community colleges, particularly the two in her district, for their efforts to work with local businesses.

“Community colleges can quickly pivot to design programs to meet the needs of employers, manufacturers and the like,” she said. “And they can do that very, very quickly in a way that a four-year school can’t necessarily do.”

But, she added, community colleges need funding to do that. Walsh said he continues to stress in conversations with governors how important it is for states to continue to invest in community colleges. He added that the president’s Build Back Better Act would have provided $100 million to help community colleges.

“Unfortunately, that went by the wayside,” he said.

Walsh added that a number of the major U.S. corporations have increased their own support of community colleges, which they often look to for skills training.

“I think that the need for investment in community colleges is a public-private partnership as well,” Walsh said. “In some parts of this country, some of the largest benefactors and largest donors to community colleges are actually employers [that team with community colleges] to skill up workers.”

Deja vu on IRAPs

Republicans on the committee went on the offense even before the hearing began. In a release issued hours before the hearing, GOP members criticized various aspects of the administration’s approach to labor and workforce development issues. In particular, they again targeted apprenticeships, saying the administration nixed opportunities to expand the programs by pulling the plug on industry-recognized apprenticeship programs that were promoted by the Trump administration.

“Registered apprenticeships had over 80 years to prove their effectiveness and have failed to meet the needs of the modern American workforce,” the release said. “It is time for a new workforce development model that is more responsive to employers.”

Ranking member Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) brought up IRAPs in both her opening and closing statements at the hearing.

“The skills gap is fueling the current worker shortage, but instead of making the workforce system more responsive to employer needs, the Biden administration has doubled down on burdensome registered apprenticeships while shuttering the industry-recognized apprenticeship program. This is not something to be proud of,” she said in her opening.

During the hearing, other Republicans also noted IRAPs. Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) said most of the IRAPs set to launch before the Biden administration pulled the plug would have served the nursing and health care fields.

“First and foremost, they weren’t good programs,” Walsh responded. “They were duplicative programs from the apprentice programs we have currently. They were not industry proven.”

Walsh is back on Capitol Hill Wednesday before the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees workforce development and education.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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