Trump Prods Labor Department to Promote Apprenticeship Programs to Erase Skills Gap

Image Credit: FlickrCC/Gage Skidmore

President Donald Trump applied his considerable branding ability to a key economic issue on Thursday.

He said he really likes the phrase, “Earn while you learn.”

It describes the basis for apprenticeship programs, which are the focus of the White House’s workforce development week. He signed an executive order to encourage more of them.

One clause of the executive order directs Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta to:

“Use available funding to promote apprenticeships, focusing in particular on expanding access to and participation in apprenticeships among students at accredited secondary and post‑secondary educational institutions, including community colleges; expanding the number of apprenticeships in sectors that do not currently have sufficient apprenticeship opportunities; and expanding youth participation in apprenticeships.”

But apprenticeships are just one slice of a much larger workforce development pie. There are retraining programs for veterans, dislocated workers, and older Americans — to name just a few.

Even Trump’s fiercest critics on the left think that the man who created and starred in NBC’s “The Apprentice” could go a long way toward reshaping the workforce if he threw his marketing prowess behind programs that help develop it.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) likes to say that the former reality show star president could champion apprenticeship programs all over the country by playing on his celebrity past.

“I guarantee Democrats would vote for that,” he said last week at a summit in Washington.

Khanna called the administration’s pledge to boost apprenticeships in the United States from 500,000 to 5 million over the next 10 years an aspirational goal, but he is wary of two hurdles.

“The President has to match his rhetoric with funding,” Khanna said in a statement. “His proposed increase to the apprenticeship program is not enough, and the cuts in other parts of the Department of Labor programs undermine his goal.”

Khanna added: “It’s also important for the President to remember that apprenticeship and workforce development is more than just for the manufacturing industry.”

Until now, the president has raced to unwind Obama-era energy regulations to save coal industry jobs that may soon be extinct anyway due to market forces tipping toward clean energy. And he seems most comfortable talking about construction jobs, given the impact the industry had on his real estate business, and manufacturing jobs, considering their prevalence in some of the states that helped make him president.

“I probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the American worker,” Trump said.

But throughout the week, Trump and his top aides have acknowledged the worrisome skills gap in the United States, even as the president has crowed about the 4.3 percent unemployment rate.

To improve upon that rate, a White House memorandum follows that point: “Substantial additional growth requires an increase in labor force participation, which requires helping those outside the labor force develop better job skills.”

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