DC Skills Initiative Working Group

The second meeting of the DC Skills initiative group featured Zach Boren, Senior Advisor in the Office of Apprenticeships at the U.S. Department of Labor, who focused on challenges and ideas surrounding the marketing of apprenticeships to businesses and youth. Mr. Boren explained to the group how American employers are having issues filling skilled jobs, and with high unemployment numbers, he believes that apprenticeship programs that focus on “learn and earn” principles benefit everyone in the economy. He discussed how the Department of Labor is trying to expand apprenticeship programs into high growth areas with good potential for upward mobility.

He also described current structural and institutional limitations on the Department of Labor and the current state of approved apprenticeship programs, which are most prominent in the field of construction. However, with the President calling for a doubling of American apprenticeships, the Department of Labor’s apprenticeship efforts are receiving more attention nationwide. But despite this endorsement, the allure of the four-year degree, regardless of the employability of the worker after graduation, as well as the lack of effective marketing of apprenticeships, will make reaching the President’s goals difficult. Apprenticeships have a “supply-side problem” due to only 1 percent of U.S. business utilizing apprenticeships, and lack of funding for Department of Labor marketing initiatives as well as too few government incentives have made attracting businesses difficult. While several measures are being proposed in Congress, with the current political climate, legislative initiatives may prove difficult. In several states, most notably South Carolina, state legislatures have enjoyed bi-partisan support in providing tax breaks for corporations that pursue apprenticeship programs, a potential model for programs in other states. With independent grants, presidential approval, and renewed efforts by the Department of Labor and independent groups, apprenticeships in the United States can find new ways to attract business partnerships and fill the talent gap in manufacturing and other high-skilled sectors.

Participants noted in the discussion that tech sectors and the healthcare industry are two areas where an integrative “earn and learn” program could have an impact, especially with the growth potential over the coming years. Women in the apprenticeship program were also a concern for the group, and Mr. Boren noted that only around 19 percent of people in the program were women. Participants also brought up recent articles that cited low numbers for women in tech firms, such as Google and Facebook. Mr. Boren noted that marketing the apprenticeships to women and encouraging them to apply could close this demographic gap, saying that apprenticeship programs could become pathways to diversity that would benefit the business as well as the applicants. Finally, it was suggested that marketing efforts aimed at youth start in the high schools, with counselors understanding that apprenticeship programs are a good tool to earn skills and maintain a middle class career without encumbering a student with debt from a four year college.

The group will meet again on August 7, when Max Grünig of Ecologic plans to present on creating green job training initiatives in Europe and the United States.

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July 3, 2014