Connecting state and local government leaders

The Importance of Scaling and Supporting Apprenticeship Programs

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Whether it’s in high schools or vocational training, “we’ve got to find a better pipeline, and the federal government needs to be part of that partnership,” said National League of Cities president Mark Stodola.

WASHINGTON — Apprenticeship programs could help address the country’s skills gap and labor shortage, but would require increased investment, diversity and awareness to do so, experts said Monday at a National League of Cities panel discussion on workforce and infrastructure in the nation’s capital.

“Scaling and supporting apprenticeship programs is critical, as is making sure that we have that connection between vocational schools and the workforce in our cities,” said Mark Stodola, NLC president and mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas. “These goals and aspirations cannot be tackled by one mayor or one city council or one city councilman or even one organization. We’ve got to have a real partnership between all of us, together.”

Apprenticeship programs can be structured in different ways, but typically provide some type of on-the-job training in a vocational or trade skill—construction, for example, or welding—in conjunction with classroom instruction. Programs exist nationwide and across multiple sectors, and are traditionally sponsored by employers and labor groups.

But many of the programs are underfunded, and city officials, who are well positioned to inform public school students about the apprenticeship options available to them, frequently aren’t aware of all of the opportunities in their area, Stodola said. That leads to a shortage of skilled workers who can take over for an aging workforce whose members are poised to retire en masse.

“When you think about that element of our workforce that’s beginning to retire and the significant knowledge base they have in terms of skills that don’t necessarily require a college degree...we are not training our workforce and adequately preparing them for taking over these kinds of jobs,” he said. “Whether it’s in our high schools or our [vocational technology] schools, we’ve got to find a better pipeline, and the federal government needs to be part of that partnership.”

Apprenticeship programs can be part of that solution, but have problems of their own that would require solutions, including underrepresentation of women and minorities in certain trade markets.

“There’s pretty low unemployment in construction right now. It was about 6.5 percent in April,” said Amy Blair, research director of the economic opportunities program at the Aspen Institute. “At the same time, we have high unemployment among African-American men in particular and underrepresentation of African-Americans in the construction industry. And women are barely represented at all in the construction industry, so there’s opportunity there.”

Much of that can be addressed through the contracting process, said David Mallino, director of LIUNA’s legislative department.

“Through the contracting, you can drive the process,” he said. “You can say whether it’s including disadvantaged communities. You can say whether it’s including women.”

The NLC is “calling on Congress” to be part of the solution, Stodola said, via a “Rebuild With Us” platform that focuses on infrastructure investment and includes four key areas, including workforce. A separate resource outlines “Workforce Investment Strategies to Support Local Economies,” including several suggestions for supporting and promoting existing apprenticeship programs.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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