The promise of apprenticeships

Last month, President Trump signed an executive order to boost apprenticeship programs in the United States. These are training programs, offered in a variety of formats, usually by businesses, to convey skills to individuals for specific vocations.

It’s a great idea, but like all great ideas, the key is in execution.

Currently, 505,000 people have apprenticeships through 2,100 programs registered with the government. President Trump has committed to a lofty goal of creating 5 million apprenticeships over the next five years.

Truth is, I get nervous whenever I hear about any government initiative that claims to provide what our economy needs.

The last thing we need is a new army of government bureaucrats pretending they are going to forecast what kind of jobs we need and then subsidizing businesses and unions to set up training programs.

But Trump’s plan doesn’t appear to do that. It establishes a wide berth for firms, or unions, or trade associations to decide on their own what they need to do. Those who are actually doing the work and doing the hiring need to decide themselves who and what they need.

Current data from the labor market screams out that we can do a better job building a work force fitting what businesses need.

The Labor Department reported 6.04 million job openings in April and 5.05 million hires. So a million jobs are still floating out there looking to be filled.

At the same time, there were 6.9 million unemployed. Sure, you say, they don’t have the skills for those million jobs. But isn’t that the point? Isn’t this the work we need to do — get those who cant find work trained and motivated?

Furthermore, if we care about our nation’s future, we’ve got to look at the deeper social problems leading to pockets of chronic unemployment.

There are 1.7 million who are unemployed in the long term, 27 weeks or more. We have a growing population, disproportionately prime-age men, who have just dropped out of the labor force.

The black unemployment rate has been double the national average for the last half-century and that is roughly where it is today. Black youth ages 16-19 have an unemployment rate of 27.3 percent.

So, if I am nervous about government bureaucrats planning out apprenticeship programs, what can government do?

Trump is proposing the federal government putting up $200 million to help firms makes these apprenticeships happen. Good, but we can’t rely on new government spending to be the answer.

The answer is removing barriers. Here are two ways.

One, consider vocational schools and training as part of education choice.

Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee introduced a bill, the Enhancing Educational Opportunities for All Students Act, in the last Congress that would permit use of Section 1 education funds — funds that the federal government gives to school districts to help low-income children — to enable any child to go wherever they want to school.

Why should that $14 billion be locked in the public school system? Give a poor child a voucher, or the equivalent, that can be used to go to a vocational school. Businesses could joint venture and help finance and build the programs to train these kids.

So let’s dust off and pass the Enhancing Educational Opportunities bill. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is the right person in the right place to help make this happen.

Second, let businesses use the funds they spend on training to count toward salary for purposes of the minimum wage. This would allow a firm to hire a young person and pay below minimum wage but also provide training, the value of which would hike the wage above the minimum. This is a way around the damage that minimum wage causes and provide a platform for unskilled youth to get trained.

If we use government to make the marketplace more free and flexible, apprenticeships can help build a 21st-century American labor force.

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Star Parker is an author and president of CURE, Center for Urban Renewal and Education. Contact her at www.urbancure.org.