‘Ambition for the Future’ With Apprenticeships

The U.S. Department of Labor has proposed big changes to the registered apprenticeship system.

The U.S. Department of Labor has proposed substantial changes to the registered apprenticeship system to provide better outcomes data, streamline aspects of the application process, and make apprenticeship more compatible with K-12 and college education.

The almost 800 pages of proposed rule revisions would touch just about every aspect of apprenticeship—making a host of changes experts have been calling for for years. It would be the first regulatory update to the system since 2008. 

A few of the significant changes include:

  • Setting a uniform minimum of 2K hours of on-the-job training for programs, while also requiring competency demonstrations.
  • Requiring an end-point assessment of apprentices, a standard practice in the UK, and more thorough reporting of program outcomes.
  • Developing a set of national occupational standards that would serve as an “off-the-shelf” template for employers and streamline the apprenticeship registration process.
  • Creating a new model, the Career Technical Education Apprenticeship, that is designed to be integrated with K-12 schooling and to expand apprenticeship access for youth.

“I give credit to the department for really being responsive to the field,” says John Colborn, interim executive director of Apprenticeships for America, an association that represents apprenticeship intermediaries.

However, he says, the proposal may go too far. “Have we created so many new requirements and innovations that they’ll fall under their own weight?”

The association is particularly concerned about alienating employers. The proposed rules would simplify aspects of the registration process for companies. But it also would add administrative burden in many other areas, Colborn told a group of experts and practitioners in a recent webinar.

“That’s particularly concerning to those of us that hope to see apprenticeship scale,” he says.

This tension between ensuring quality and improving efficiency is not new. It was a common point of debate during the Trump administration’s ill-fated effort to create a new system of industry-registered apprenticeships. At the time, a number of experts stressed that there’s no way to shortcut the process of creating a strong apprenticeship program.

“Designing and building a quality program that has the value that will really pay off for the worker and the employer over time — that’s a lift,” Deborah Kobes, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, previously told Work Shift.

To do that often requires help from apprenticeship intermediaries and financial incentives. And one thing the new rules wouldn’t do is guarantee more money from the federal government.

A few experts and practitioners on the Apprenticeships for America webinar, however, speculated that the Labor Department sees the proposed system overhaul as a necessary setup for a funding infusion and growth.

“What I see here is an ambition for the future,” one participant said.

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