What’s Old Is New Again: Unpacking the Trump Administration’s New Apprenticeship Rule

Noah Sudow and Ben Watsky

This week, the Trump Administration announced a proposal for a new form of apprenticeships, along with nearly $300 million in funding for apprenticeship programs. What exactly would this proposal do, and where is the money going?

Apprenticeships: A Primer

Since the Middle Ages, craftsmen have employed young people in exchange for formal training in their trade. The original form of “learning while earning,” apprenticeships enable individuals to practice a particular trade through hands-on experience, while also receiving a salary or other compensation. 

Today, countries from the U.S. to Germany to Australia have created formal, government-recognized apprenticeship programs. In the U.S., these are known as Registered Apprenticeships and overseen by the Department of Labor. As of 2016, there were approximately 500,000 active apprentices in the United States, in more than 21,000 registered apprenticeship programs.

As the country’s labor market continues to tighten, apprenticeships, along with other forms of work-based learning, have gained traction as an approach that can both meet employers’ talent development needs and provide pathways to stable employment and careers. 

The New Proposal

The Department of Labor’s new proposed rule calls for the creation of Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs), which would exist alongside the federal government’s current system of registered apprenticeships. According to the proposal, the goal of the IRAPs is to provide employers and industry organizations with greater autonomy in the creation and design of apprenticeship programs.  

Rather than being run by the federal government like registered apprenticeships, these new programs would be designed and overseen by so-called Standards Recognition Entities (or SREs). These bodies would “[set] standards for training, structure, and curricula for IRAPs in relevant industries or occupational areas,” according to a press release. With the support of the Department, the SREs would monitor Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs to ensure that they meet an appropriate standard of quality. A variety of entities, including trade associations, education providers, government entities, nonprofits, and unions (or some combination thereof) are eligible to become SREs.  

In addition to the proposed rule, the Department also announced $183.8 million in grant funding to support apprenticeship programs in information technology, advanced manufacturing, and healthcare. The grants are being given to 23 academic institutions and consortia, most of which include both higher institutions (e.g., community colleges) and employers or employer associations.

Finally, the Department announced a new grant proposal: $100 million to fund up to 30 new apprenticeship grants. This new funding will focus on supporting public-private partnerships to develop new apprenticeship programs or expand existing ones.

The announcement was lauded by industry groups, who praised the federal government for “[investing] in helping manufacturers attract and train the next generation of workers.” Democratic policymakers, including Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member on the Senate HELP Committee, criticized the announcement, making the case that the IRAPs would not include any of the protections for workers and taxpayers that are included in existing registered apprenticeship programs. 

What’s Next

The public comment period on the proposed IRAP rule will remain open until August 26, after which point the Department can issue the final rule. Applications for the new $100 million apprenticeship grant are open to higher education institutions, state systems, nonprofits, labor unions, and labor management organizations through September 24.