Registered apprenticeships: The foundation America needs
By Rep. Donald Norcross
Growing up, I enjoyed taking things apart and putting them back together to understand how they work. I loved to work with my hands, so while my three brothers decided to attend traditional four-year colleges, I chose the other four-year school — a Registered Apprenticeship Program. My apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) laid the foundation for me to go from the construction site to Congress. It allowed me to earn-while-I-learned and set me on a path toward a fulfilling, family-sustaining career.
Our country needs a well-trained workforce to help fill the jobs of the future, and apprenticeships are critical to our success as we continue to recover from the devastating impact of the coronavirus. We need electricians and computer programmers, just like we need doctors and lawyers. It’s more important now than ever that we understand education is not “one size fits all.” When my children were growing up, I didn’t know if they’d want to go to college, build the college or defend it. We must promote job training programs and apprenticeships in the same way we promote traditional four-year colleges because without these highly-skilled workers, our economy cannot recover.
I worked closely with House Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) to pass the bipartisan National Apprenticeship Act of 2021 (NAA) to provide students and workers all over the country the ability to pursue apprenticeship opportunities. This legislation strengthens the proven models developed by the Registered Apprenticeship Program — America’s most successful workforce program — and will create and expand Registered Apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship programs. Expanding access to these opportunities will connect workers all over the country with stable, good-paying jobs as we continue to fight the pandemic and an economic crisis. According to the Department of Labor, 94 percent of apprentices who complete Registered Apprenticeships are employed upon completion, earning an average starting wage of above $70,000 annually. Yet, according to the most recent data, only 0.3 percent of the overall workforce in America have completed an apprenticeship. That needs to change.
The NAA invests nearly $3.5 billion over five years to scale-up apprenticeship opportunities, streamline access to apprenticeships for workers and employers and expand apprenticeships into new in-demand industry sectors and occupations. In addition, it will create more opportunities for America’s displaced workers and youth to address the growing skills gap in America. North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) have created the “gold standard” with the Registered Apprenticeship Program, and the NAA will expand that gold standard across America’s established and emerging industries.
A major barrier to expanding Registered Apprenticeships in high-growth job sectors outside of the skilled trades is employers’ lack of familiarity with the process to create and manage Registered Apprenticeship programs. One of my bills included in the NAA, the Apprenticeship Hubs Across America Act, addresses this need by supporting a national network of Apprenticeship Hubs that convenes multiple stakeholders, including local worker organizations, workforce boards, community colleges and employers, to help support the expansion of the successful Registered Apprenticeship model.
In April, I visited medical apprentices at the American Training Center in Pennsauken, N.J. I toured the innovative facility and spoke to staff and current apprentices, who are training to become certified nursing aides and medical assistants, about their personal experiences in a Registered Apprenticeship, and the advantages that the NAA would provide by encouraging employers, training providers and community stakeholders to work collaboratively to identify challenges facing potential apprentices, as well as new apprenticeship opportunities.
The NAA’s historic investments in workforce training would not only benefit workers and their families but would save American taxpayers an estimated $10.6 billion in the form of increased tax revenues from higher worker pay and productivity and decreased spending on public-assistance programs and unemployment insurance. The bill has been endorsed by the Biden-Harris administration, the House Labor Caucus, the Bipartisan Congressional Building Trades Caucus and NABTU, which represent over 3 million skilled craft professionals.
Some Americans have been able to work remotely during the pandemic, however, the majority of our economy requires workers to go to a physical location, including our essential workers. As our economy continues to reopen and more people return to commuting to their in-person work environments, it is clear we must invest in our roads, bridges, mass transportation, broadband and electric grid. These vital investments will show direct returns to our communities, and President Biden’s American Jobs Plan will get us there.
President Biden and Vice President Harris have called for the jobs created by rebuilding America’s infrastructure to be filled by diverse, local, well-trained workers who have a choice to join a union. The administration knows that the first step must be expanding Registered Apprenticeship Programs and investing in pipelines into these programs. The National Apprenticeship Act is the foundation our country needs to successfully implement the American Jobs Plan to support workers, boost jobs, accelerate our economy and build back better.
Norcross represents New Jersey’s 1st District and is a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor.