Acting DOL chief focuses on apprenticeships, partnerships

Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su testifies Wednesday before the House Education and the Workforce Committee. (Screenshot from streamed hearing)

Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su — and Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee — at a House hearing on Wednesday focused on highlighting registered apprenticeships and the need to develop stronger partnerships to build a skilled workforce pipeline to meet critical worker shortages.

Committee Republicans, meanwhile, contended that the department hasn’t been responsive to requests about details on various U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) programs, including job training programs, and that increased bureaucratic red tape is hampering business growth. They also discussed the now-defunct Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program (IRAP), which was created during the Trump administration.

The hearing centered on the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2024 funding proposal for DOL, though Su acknowledged that the department realizes spending caps under the recently passed federal debt-ceiling plan will affect its requests. Committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) noted that DOL has asked for $5 billion more in discretionary spending than it received last year.

Some of the questions from Republicans, which ranged from child labor laws to labor legislation implemented when Su was California’s labor chief, were charged. Foxx, for example, accused Su of skirting questions and sarcastically noted she was impressed when Su responded “yes” to some of their queries, but Su kept her composure over the three-and-a-half-hour hearing.

Approach to apprenticeships

Democrats’ questions were mainly related to the workforce needs of recently passed legislation, such as the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science Act. They argued federal funding is important to workforce development, which requires strong partnerships among employers, workers and unions, higher education institutions, community organizations and others. Su and Democrats said the success of registered apprenticeships are a result of such partnerships.

Su, whose nomination to serve as permanent secretary still awaits a Senate floor vote, said DOL is committed to the administration’s goal of serving at least 1 million apprentices annually within 10 years.

Foxx said the importance of apprenticeships in workforce development is something they agree on, but they divert on their approaches to apprenticeships. Democrats have focused on expanding registered apprenticeships, while Republicans have argued that IRAPs would have streamlined the process for more companies to create apprenticeships.

“It’s hard to think of a worse response to our worker shortage,” said Foxx, noting there are more than 10 million open jobs in the U.S.

Related article: Labor secretary nominee touts apprenticeships

When asked by Republicans why she didn’t support IRAPs, Su didn’t specifically address the question, but she noted that DOL has helped to expand and made it simpler for employers to create registered apprenticeships, especially in industries not traditionally associated with apprenticeships, such as healthcare, trucking, cybersecurity and teaching. More women also are entering traditional apprenticeships in fields such as construction, trades and manufacturing.

Rep. Donald Norcross (D-New Jersey), who himself went through an electrician apprenticeship, noted that companies can create their own IRAPs, but they want access to federal funding without adhering to federal regulations to ensure quality.   

“That’s the big difference. We want your money but we don’t want any kinds of regulations on it,” he said.

Highlighting community colleges

Several committee members from both sides of the aisle noted the role of community colleges in workforce and economic development in their communities:

  • Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon), who co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional Apprenticeship Caucus, cited Portland Community College’s role in an Oregon high school’s two-year advanced manufacturing apprenticeship for 16-to-18-year old students.
  • Rep. Kathy Manning (D-North Carolina) noted a recent $1.7 million federal grant to Guilford Technical Community College to expand its trucking program.
  • Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Connecticut) lauded the workforce development work of her alma mater, Naugatuck Valley Community College.
  • Rep. Frank Mrvan (D-Indiana) thanked Su for recently visiting Ivy Tech Community College with first lady Dr. Jill Biden to learn about its training programs for infrastructure and renewable energies jobs.
  • Rep. Julia Letlow (R-Louisiana) noted the success of the federally funded YouthBuild program for out-of-school youth at Northshore Technical Community College, which has hosted the program since 2001. But she was critical of DOL for not renewing the grant to the college because the department allegedly said the college’s program didn’t do enough to promote green jobs and union membership as well as diversity, even though at least half of the participants are students of color and women.

Su also observed several times community colleges’ role in apprenticeships, recognizing their pre-apprenticeship programs that academically prepare learners for those apprenticeships. In addition, Su noted the department’s Strengthening Community College Training Grants program, which connects education and training to employer needs.

The acting DOL chief also highlighted the success of sector-based training efforts that comprise partnerships that often include public two-year colleges. As new federal investment rolls out to states and communities, it’s crucial to find ways to scale proven training models for jobs that will be created, Su said, noting it’s the department’s role to help facilitate those efforts.

“Our job is to align the various parts of the system so they work as seamlessly as possible for employers and for job seekers and for workers in the system who are seeking to upskill,” Su said.

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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