By JOSH BOAK
and LAURIE KELLMAN
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump says apprenticeships could match workers with millions of open jobs, but he’s reluctant to devote more taxpayer money to that work.
Instead, Trump and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta say the administration’s priority is getting universities and private companies to pair up and pay the cost of such learn-to-earn arrangements.
The president, whose resume includes a long run on TV’s “The Apprentice,” has accepted a challenge from Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff to create 5 million apprenticeships over five years. Now, as part of a weeklong apprenticeship push, Trump was planning to visit Waukesha County Technical College on Tuesday with his daughter, Ivanka, as well as Acosta and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
“Apprenticeships are going to be a big, big factor in our country,” Trump said during his first-ever full Cabinet meeting Monday. “There are millions of good jobs that lead to great careers, jobs that do not require a four-year degree or the massive debt that often comes with those four-year degrees and even two-year degrees.”
Many employers and economists — and Republicans and Democrats — welcome the idea of apprenticeships as a way to help ensure people have the skill and knowledge needed for jobs that employers say they can’t fill at a time of historically low unemployment. The most recent budget for the federal government passed with about $90 million for apprenticeships, and Trump so far isn’t proposing adding more.
But the Trump administration, like President Barack Obama’s, says there’s a need that can be met with a change in American attitudes toward vocational education and apprenticeships. A report from November 2016 by 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 labor shortage is not being seen only in the construction trades. It has also hit the agriculture, manufacturing, information-technology and health-care industries.
“There aren’t enough people to fill the jobs and the people applying don’t have the skills necessary,” said Conor Smyth, spokesman for the Wisconsin Technical College System, where President and Ivanka Trump, Acosta and Walker were visiting.
That’s where apprenticeship comes in.
Participants get on-the-job training while going to school, sometimes while companies foot the bill.
IBM, for example, takes part in a six-year program called P-TECH. P-TECH starts off with high-school students in 60 schools in six states. Those students get a paid internship, earn an associate’s degree and get first-in-line consideration for jobs from 250 participating employers.
It relies on money coming from the federal government— a possible source of trouble since the Trump budget plan would cut spending on job training. P-TECH uses $1.2 billion in federal funding provided under the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which was passed in 2006, said Stan Litow, a founder of the program.
“This really demonstrates what you can do with apprenticeships with existing dollars,” Litow said.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, said Trump’s “rhetoric doesn’t match the reality” of his proposed budget reductions, which would reduce federal money for job training by 40 percent, taking from $2.7 billion to $1.6 billion.
“If you’re really interested in promoting apprenticeship, you have to invest in that skills training,” said Mike Rosen, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union.
Eric Haban, 35, started as a youth apprentice junior in high school and then completed a four-year program at Lakeshore Technical College in Wisconsin, which, in 1911, became the first state in the country to pass a law establishing apprenticeship programs. At the school, Haban learned to be a machinist for LDI Industries, which makes hydraulic components and lubricating equipment.
“It really gave me a jump start to get into a field that I had no prior experience in,” Haban said.
Apprenticeships are few and far between. Of the 146 million jobs in the United States, about 0.35 percent — or slightly more than half a 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 programs, Lerman said. Fewer than 50,000 people including 11,104 in the military, completed their apprenticeships in 2016, according to Labor Department.
The Trump administration has yet to spell out how it would improve completion rates.
Acosta said Monday that the administration’s policy would revolve around encouraging more partnerships between business and schools rather than increasing the $90 million the federal government currently devotes to apprenticeships.
“I want to challenge the assumption that the only way to move policy is to increase government spending,” Acosta said on Monday at the White House news briefing. “We should measure success based on outcomes and not simply based on spending.”
Susan Helper, former chief economist at the Commerce Department, said that covering administrative costs that would come with increasing the number of apprentices would most likely take more than $90 million.
But Helper, now a professor at Case Western Reserve University, noted that the ways in which federal funds are spent on apprenticeship programs also matter. Tax breaks might do little to expand the number of apprenticeships, since the biggest barriers involve the upfront costs of starting an apprenticeship program.