Democrats should work with, not against, Republicans to expand apprenticeship programs

There are millions of jobs in the United States that remain unfilled because employers struggle to find applicants with the skills required for certain positions. Apprenticeships and other forms of work-based learning are tailored to help shrink the jobs gap in the U.S. because they offer American workers the opportunity to succeed without being tied to large sums of student debt.

As a former community banker and former chairman of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, I understand that business owners and entrepreneurs know best what skills their employees need to excel in the workplace. Five years ago, I started the bipartisan Congressional Skilled American Workforce Caucus with Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Detroit to promote increased skilled workforce training.

Rather than modernizing the apprenticeship system, House Democrats rejected an offer from Republicans that would embrace employer-led innovation and new models for apprenticeship programs.

As written, the National Apprenticeship Act closes pathways for students and job seekers by making the existing apprenticeship system, which was created during the Great Depression, the only option. In Fiscal Year 2019, 252,000 individuals entered apprenticeships, and only 81,000 graduated from the registered system. Clearly, there is room to improve the existing system, make space for employer-led innovation, and get more Americans back to work.

During committee consideration of this bill, Republicans proposed a substitute amendment that would empower job creators through flexibility. Using the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act framework, Republicans have embraced new models that would promote employer-driven innovation and new, dynamic apprenticeship programs, rather than perpetuating the flaws and rigidity of the current system.

By choosing to reject extending federal funding to Industry Recognized-Apprenticeship Programs, House Democrats have curbed the momentum of bipartisan reform efforts. In doing so, liberal and progressive lawmakers have impeded the ability of the Department of Labor to provide more Americans access to quality apprenticeship opportunities.

In its present form, the National Apprenticeship Act burdens job creators with overly prescriptive requirements and time-consuming paperwork. The restrictive nature of the Democrats’ bill discourages new and small businesses from participating in the registered apprenticeship program and in general, puts job-generating programs in jeopardy. Congress should encourage innovation in the apprenticeship space instead of doubling down on a flawed approach for businesses and job seekers.

COVID-19 has presented significant challenges for employers and left millions of Americans still without employment. We must seek solutions that get Americans back to work and revitalize our struggling industries. To accomplish this, we must cut, not add, the bureaucratic red tape that currently inhibits both sides of the employment process.

We cannot allow partisan differences to limit job creation opportunities for our employers and workers — especially during this health and economic crisis. Republicans object to the bill under consideration, but we agree on the underlying need to provide jobs for our citizens. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had the opportunity to create a modernized, bipartisan piece of legislation that reworks an important program to meet the needs of current and future Americans, but instead, the bill that we will consider today is more of the same. As members of Congress, our duty is to help hardworking families across our nation, and we must not lose sight of that focus.

While the registered apprenticeship system has traditionally played a major role in our national workforce development system, it remains inadequate. Instead of trying to reform the system, we must reimagine the apprenticeship model with a focus on innovation and flexibility. This will get more Americans back to work and provide our people with promising employment opportunities for years to come. My Republican colleagues and I will continue to work towards this goal and renew the American dream.

French Hill, a Republican, represents Arkansas’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the co-chair of the Congressional Skilled American Workforce Caucus and serves on the House Committee on Financial Services.

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