Labor secretary nominee touts apprenticeships

Labor secretary nominee Julie Su addresses questions at Thursday's Senate confirmation hearing. (Screenshot from streamed event)

The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) on Thursday held a nomination hearing for Julie Su, who is President Joe Biden’s pick to serve as the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

Su is currently acting labor secretary and was deputy secretary under the departing incumbent Marty Walsh, who served in the top post since 2021. Before that, she was California’s labor secretary.

While questions ranged from Su’s record with unions, to unemployment insurance fraud to worker safety, some senators questioned her commitment to apprenticeships and workforce training. Committee chair Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) said that “we need a labor secretary who will understand that young people should have access to apprenticeships.”

Su said that workforce training is a “top priority” for the labor department.

“We’re seeing a need for skilled workers in a whole bunch of different industries,” she said.

Expanding into new areas

Su discussed the work she and Walsh did to expand apprenticeships and training opportunities for jobs, particularly for infrastructure-related jobs – such as construction, trucking and semi-conductor manufacturing – many of which do not require a four-year degree.

Su also touted DOL’s national Youth Employment Works strategy and expanded investments in rural communities, tribal communities and mental health to ensure that “our nation’s workers are ready to meet the needs of employers in jobs across America.”

In the last two years, more than 4,600 new apprenticeship programs were created, representing about 11,000 employers, Su said. And apprenticeships can help address workforce shortages, she said.

“Apprenticeship programs are a big part of that answer. Our overall workforce development system is a big part of that answer, she said, adding, “We can build physical roads and bridges. We also have to build the roads and bridges that connect people to the jobs they need.”

Su also pointed to the growth in cybersecurity apprenticeships – there are now about 43,000 cybersecurity apprentices – and noted that 17 states now have teacher apprenticeships, which is up from two states two years ago. And she referenced an $80 million DOL grant program to increase nurse training.

When questioned about the growing length of apprenticeship training, Su said, “We have to look at ways to recruit and to train and to get people with high-quality training into good jobs as quickly as we can.”

A rebrand

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) noted the importance of apprenticeships but said they may be in need of “rebranding.”

Su agreed, noting that rebranding is needed not just for the apprenticeship model but for new jobs, particularly in manufacturing. There are new jobs that are now accessible “to whole communities that might not have been included before,” she said.

She also noted the importance of making it clear that the pathway to apprenticeship “is just as valid, just as worthy of our respect and our praise, as going to a four-year college,” Su said.

The Senate HELP committee will vote on Su’s nomination on April 26.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.