President Donald Trump on Thursday ordered more money and a bigger role for private companies in designing apprenticeship programs meant to fill some of the 6 million open jobs in the U.S.
Trump signed an executive order to roughly double to $200 million the taxpayer money spent on learn-and-earn programs under a grant system called ApprenticeshipUSA. The money would come from existing job training programs. The executive order would leave it to industry to design apprenticeships under broad standards to be set by the Labor Department.
"We're training people to have great jobs and high paying jobs," Trump said at a White House ceremony. "We're here today to celebrate the dignity of work and the greatness of the American worker."
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Trump is directing the government to review and streamline some 43 workforce programs across 13 agencies. Senior administration officials have said Trump was reluctant to spend more federal funds on apprenticeships, so the boost would come from existing money, perhaps from the streamlining process. The officials spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity to preview Trump's order.
Companies have long complained that they can't find trained people to fill highly technical jobs, and apprenticeship programs have sprung up around the country. Companies now have to register with the Labor Department and adhere to specific government guidelines.
Under Trump's order, private industry would have more flexibility and be eligible for registration by the Labor Department.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., attended the signing ceremony and supports expanding apprenticeships generally.
"There is a little bit of uncertainty," about how the order will be put into effect, said Scott, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He said he recommended to the administration that all apprenticeships be registered, but Trump's order does not require it.
"We're concerned about the unregistered programs," Scott said. "The key is accountability."
Labor Department, White House officials said, would review the apprenticeships but under broader standards. Some critics say that means government approval would be more limited.
"We get that he wants to put a little more money toward the grants, but they're also trying to eliminate some of the oversight," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who is co-sponsoring a bill with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to give companies tax incentives for apprenticeships. "You don't want a fly-by-night training program."
There are about 500,000 apprenticeship positions in the U.S., representing less than a percentage of the U.S. workforce.
Trump had campaigned on creating jobs. The executive order addresses the nation's "skills gap" that have left millions of open jobs unfilled. Apprenticeships would give students a way to learn skills without the crippling debt of four-year colleges, and expand those opportunities to women, minorities and other populations underrepresented among the nation's roughly 505,000 apprentices.
Trump accepted a challenge earlier this year from a CEO to create 5 million new apprenticeships.
The Trump administration has said there's a need that can be met with a change in the American attitude toward vocational education and apprenticeships. A November 2016 report by former President Barack Obama's Commerce Department found that "apprenticeships are not fully understood in the United States, especially" by employers, who tend to use apprentices for a few, hard-to-fill positions" but not as widely as they could.
The shortages for specifically trained workers cut across multiple job sectors, from construction trades to agriculture, manufacturing, information technology and health care.
Critics say Trump can't be promoting apprenticeships while he proposes cutting federal job training funding by as much as 40 percent — from $2.7 billion to $1.6 billion. There also are questions about oversight of apprenticeship programs that begin and operate almost completely under the control of the company.
Apprenticeships are few and far between. Of the 146 million jobs in the United States, about 0.35 percent — or slightly more than a half-million — were filled by active apprentices in 2016. Filling millions more jobs through apprenticeships would require the government to massively ramp up its efforts.
"Scaling is the big issue," said Robert Lerman, a fellow at the Urban Institute.
Another complication: only about half of apprentices finish their multi-year programs. Fewer than 50,000 people — including 11,104 in the military — completed their apprenticeships in 2016, according to Labor Department.
Trump's resume includes the hit television show, "The Apprentice."