Boosting Human Infrastructure: How federal funding could advance much-needed apprenticeships and career pathway programs

Published On
Feb 15, 2022

Workforce development initiatives, including the enhancement and expansion of registered apprenticeship programs such as those of the IBEW-NECA Electrical Training Alliance, Bowie, Md., stand to get a big boost from Congress this year.

Roughly $40 billion is currently on the table to boost apprenticeships, community college partnerships and career pathway programs in middle and high schools prioritizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. The workforce provisions were initially outlined in the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan to be included in a wide-ranging infrastructure bill, but those and other spending initiatives instead were ultimately written into the Build Back Better bill. While that legislation has stalled, lawmakers are considering putting the most popular elements—including workforce development initiatives—into new stand-alone bills or as part of broader legislation.

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Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat who was instrumental in ensuring the workforce development provisions were included in the Build Back Better bill, said the initiatives go hand in hand with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law in November 2021.

“As we build and repair infrastructure and transition to a clean-energy economy, millions of jobs will require skilled workers,” Bonamici said. “To educate the workforce for these good jobs, we need to expand workforce training programs and registered apprenticeships.”

Here’s a breakdown of the workforce development provisions, as they are currently written.

Registered apprenticeship programs

The provisions call for $1 billion in the registered apprenticeship system, of which half will be dedicated to programs to entice more women and people of color into apprenticeships, said Megan Evans, senior government affairs manager at the National Skills Coalition in Washington, D.C.

“Increased access to apprenticeships, like those administered by the IBEW and NECA, are an important piece of the solution to ensuring that workers impacted by the pandemic can attain better jobs than before,” Evans said.

The funding builds on the investments laid out in the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and now the Department of Labor (DOL) has a combined $3 billion toward expanding the size and scope of the apprenticeship system, “a proven earn-and-learn model that has grown by more than 70% over the past decade,” said Sergio Galeano, economic policy advisor at Third Way, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Building trades apprenticeships in particular are recognized as premier programs with education and training modules, “the way apprenticeships are designed to be,” said Todd W. Stafford, executive director of the Electrical Training Alliance.

“The goal is for the program to benefit the apprentice—all decisions of the JATC are to benefit the apprentice first,” Stafford said. “In many nonunion apprenticeship programs, it’s often the opposite. Most nonunion programs teach apprenticeships as task-oriented, and, while the person learns to do that one task extremely well, it may be just one subset of a larger comprehensive interrelated set of tasks, and so they aren’t trained comprehensively on what a journey-level worker can and should do.”

Task training helps businesses, as it’s cost-intensive to rotate apprentices so they are exposed to all types of tasks journey-level workers are expected to do every day, he said. But in reality, the one-task apprenticeship model can actually hurt businesses because it results in workers who are not able to perform to their potential, so it costs more time and money to continue training in all necessary areas.

“The NECA-IBEW apprenticeship program is designed to be in the best interest of the apprentice first,” Stafford said. “They learn a comprehensive set of skills to build a career within the electrical industry, and they also learn about taking responsibility for their work ethic—the first step to any successful career.”

Any apprenticeship program that arises out of new federal legislation “has to have some kind of voice for the apprentice” to be included with the member representative—the labor union or employer, he said.

Through $5 billion in sector and industry grants, the workforce development provisions will aid in introducing new apprenticeship programs in traditional industries and emerging fields such as advanced manufacturing and clean energy, Galeano said. The funds will be disbursed by the DOL on a competitive basis and awarded to eligible partnerships “with a focus on those expanding employment in high-skill, high-demand and high-wage industries and occupations.”

Education programs

Similarly, the workforce development provisions designate $5 billion in community college and industry partnership grants to expand workforce development initiatives in such industries and occupations, Galeano said. Directed through the Department of Education and in collaboration with the DOL, the funds will be distributed on a competitive basis to institutions that expand post-secondary opportunities, with an emphasis on portable and stackable credentials in high-demand and high-skill occupations.

“Whether you want to be an electrician or powerhouse technician, a machine repairer or solar panel builder, the investments will provide affordable opportunities to get those skills and earn a middle-class life,” he said.

The partnership grants will also fund supportive services, career services and job placement assistance to individuals with barriers to employment, said Maria Flynn, president and CEO of JFF, a workforce and education advocacy group based in Boston.

In the best programs, community colleges design curricula and other program elements—such as work experience—in coordination with employers, so that what students learn is tailored to specific industry needs, she said.

“However, not all community colleges have the capacity to work with employers in this way to meet their specific needs,” Flynn said. “Funding to strengthen college and employer partnerships is an important investment to build the workforce and contribute to economic growth.”

The provisions also include $700 million for career and technical education in high schools and middle schools, with a particular emphasis on hands-on learning within the STEM fields, including the trades, the National Skills Coalition’s Evans said. Such programs can increase the lifetime earning potential for graduating students, “developing pathways to family-sustaining careers for individuals who aren’t necessarily seeking a four-year degree.”

Additional workforce development initiatives

The provisions also include $1.2 billion for a reboot of the DOL’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training to help adults learn skills that lead to “family-sustaining jobs,” as well as $500 million for grants to institutions of higher education to improve completion rates.

“Community college students often face an array of barriers to remaining in college—financial challenges, family responsibilities, the difficulty of balancing work and school,” Flynn said. Through retention and completion grants, “colleges will be able to offer a more robust array of the academic, personal, career planning and financial supports that have been proven to increase the ability of students to access, retain and complete a program of study.”

The provisions also include funding for states and localities to more easily provide incumbent worker training and support for training participants in areas that often create barriers such as childcare, transportation and housing costs, Evans said.

“All of these investments will make it easier for employers to hire and retain workers and provide more individuals access to good jobs in which local employers are actively hiring,” she said. “These investments will … serve to help those most hurt by the pandemic access training for in-demand careers.”

About the Author

Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Katie Kuehner-Hebert has more than three decades of experience writing about the construction industry, and her articles have been featured in the Associated General Contractor’s Constructor magazine, the American Fence Association’s Fencepost, the...

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