Industries Deserve Consistent Apprenticeship Rules and Regulations

Le’Loni English

Senior Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022

November 15, 2021, marked the beginning of the seventh annual National Apprenticeship week. That same day, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) published a proposal to rescind its regulation and recently established framework regarding Standards Recognition Entities (SREs) of Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs). To succeed, industries offering apprenticeships need consistent rules and regulations that do not change at the whim of the executive branch. Passing the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021 (Act) is one way that Congress can support established registered apprenticeship programs.   

Current DOL apprenticeship regulations

In 2017, former President Trump signed Executive Order 13801 with the stated goal of “expanding apprenticeships and reforming ineffective education and workforce development programs.” The order also sought to “ease the regulatory burden” and reduce or eliminate taxpayer support for certain programs. Among other things, the order established IRAPs in an effort to deregulate government-funded apprenticeship programs and shift oversight to private industry. SREs are organizations that are allowed to recognize and evaluate IRAPs and are approved by DOL. SREs include traditional apprenticeship organizations such as trade associations and unions, as well as corporations, schools, and non-profit organizations.

However, the changes were slow to start, and the first recognized IRAP was not announced until October 2020. Proponents of the SRE and IRAP model lauded decreased regulation and the ability for industries to set their own standards for on-the-job training, including wages and safety regulations for apprentices. Critics of IRAPs stated the DOL was increasing the risk of harm to apprentices and preventing increased wages by shifting regulation and quality control of programs to SREs.

Proposed modifications

On February 17, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14016 formally rescinding the 2017 Trump-era order. The Biden administration stated the abrupt change in course would not impact existing SREs and IRAPs but would cease the support and creation of new IRAPs. Instead, the focus would shift back to traditional DOL registered apprenticeship programs. Also in February 2021, the Biden supported Act passed the House, but it remains stalled in the Senate. The Act proposes the allocation of $400 million dollars to the current DOL registered apprenticeship programs and the expansion of programs to new industries. The Act does not provide funding for IRAPs.

When explaining the proposed dismantling of the IRAP framework, the DOL asserts that the IRAP model created a duplicate system that “could lead to lower quality standards for training and poorer safety and welfare protections for apprentices compared to registered apprenticeship programs.” The DOL also notes that registered apprenticeships require progressively increasing wages which is a benefit and incentive to program participants that is not guaranteed by IRAPs.

Overall, apprenticeships need more support and funding. One barrier is that some employers believe registering an apprenticeship program with DOL is burdensome. Increasing the availability and visibility of apprenticeships will require employer and industry leader input. In addition to increased funding, the new Act would codify the responsibilities of the DOL Office of Apprenticeships to include building a coalition of industry leaders, employers, labor organizations and other stakeholders to expand apprenticeships to new occupations and sectors.

Disparities in apprenticeships

Another argument for investing in the already existing DOL registered apprenticeship programs is the current administration’s commitment to diversifying apprenticeship participation. Generally, apprenticeship participation and outcomes are not diverse. For example, recent data shows that less than ten percent of program participants are women. Even once they are part of registered apprenticeship programs, women and people of color who complete an apprenticeship are more likely to earn less than their white male counterparts. Several factors contribute to this gap, including the types of industries that historically offer apprenticeship opportunities. The lingering perception is that only trades and unions offer apprenticeships and that they are an alternative, instead of a path or supplement, to higher education.

In an effort to remedy the persistent diversity issues in apprenticeship programs, the DOL Secretary has reinstated the Advisory Committee on Apprenticeships. One goal of the advisory committee will be making apprenticeship programs more accessible to women and people of color. The DOL is also committed to adding more industries and types of programs to attract a larger base of participants in fields such as medicine and technology. Participating in a DOL registered apprenticeship requires the program to abide by the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) regulations for registered apprenticeship programs.     

Increasing opportunities

Varying rules and shifting regulations may dampen corporate interest in creating or sustaining apprenticeship programs. The last modifications to DOL apprenticeship regulations took more than three years to fully implement and the agency is now abandoning those changes. Despite general bi-partisan support, workforce development programs are underfunded, and apprenticeships continue to suffer from disparities in wages and participation. Lawmakers should work to expand opportunities for workers to avoid student debt and obtain training in high-paying careers. Additionally, increasing diversity in apprenticeship programs may in turn increase diversity in the industries that utilize apprentice labor. Congress should pass and strengthen the Act to secure increased funding and support for safe, stable apprenticeship programs through DOL regulation using the existing program framework.