Trump administration declares apprentices a priority

Area union leaders and company heads, who know first hand the challenge of finding skilled workers to meet workforce demands, welcome U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s declaration to match American workers with specific jobs.

Acosta is looking to increase apprenticeships across the country after some executives, at a recent White House round table discussion, challenged President Donald Trump to generate a “moonshot” of 5 million new apprenticeships over five years.

“It’s something that’s needed,” said Marty Loney, business agent with the United Association Local Union No. 396, a union of plumbers, pipefitters, welders and service technicians.

Loney, who has trained apprentices for his union, said there are more than 1,000 apprenticeable occupations in Ohio, or jobs that require skills typically acquired through apprenticeship programs.

“But something happened about 20 years ago or so that is negatively impacting us now,” he said. “Schools started eliminating shop classes and other programs like that because the belief was they weren’t needed and everyone should go to college. Students didn’t receive much, if any, information about what opportunities are in skilled trades.

“Now here we are with a new generation of workers who are unaware of good-paying jobs, careers, that could be available to them if they had the right skills to match them.”

Acosta said he intends to make public-private apprenticeships his debut issue as Trump’s point man on matching American workers with specific jobs.

“CEO after CEO has told me that they are eager to fill their vacancies, but they cannot find workers with the right skills,” he said Friday in remarks prepared for the labor ministers of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging-market nations gathered this week in Germany. Apprenticeships that pay salaries and often lead to careers, he added, “are a major priority for President Trump and the Department of Labor.”

The declaration represent the first indication since Acosta’s swearing-in three weeks ago that apprenticeships are at the core of the Trump administration’s plans to train a new generation of workers.

The discussion of apprenticeships is a relatively new one for Trump, who campaigned for the White House on promises to restore manufacturing jobs that he said had been lost to flawed trade deals and unfair competition from China, Mexico and more.

But it’s not new to policymakers of either party or the private sector, whose leaders have for years run apprenticeship programs.

In a discussion in February, some of the two dozen CEOs gathered to discuss manufacturing jobs suggested there were still plenty of openings but too few qualified people to fill them. One executive said his company has 50 participants in a factory apprenticeship program, but could take 500 if enough were qualified.

Unemployment is historically low, but there are gaps in some sectors. Government figures show there are 324,000 open factory jobs nationwide — triple the number in 2009, during the depths of the recession.

Locally, a number of large construction projects already underway and others on the horizon call for additional skilled workers to meet the demands.

Rocco DiGennaro Jr., president of the Western Reserve Building and Construction Trades Council, has said almost everything craft is taking on new apprentices. But, he added, it’s always a challenge to attract enough qualified workers.

The local trades council covers Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties with roughly 7,000 members. In those counties, there are 24 trade unions, and each union can range from 100 to around 2,000 or 3,000 members. In building, there are 15 different trades.

DiGennaro said that projects being planned now have the potential to be positives for the area not just in and of themselves, but for other projects they could lead to in the future.

Dale Foerster, vice president of Starr Manufacturing in Vienna, said collaborative efforts are a vital step in moving forward. Programs such as the welding course recently launched at Eastern Gateway Community College, designed to help meet the shortage of welders, and efforts by the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition to educate workers about job opportunities are helping close the skills gap in Mahoning Valley.

“It is imperative to provide the right training to fit the work that is taking place, the skills the companies need for their employees to have to keep operating, to remain competitive,” she said.

But the success of any program depends on how it’s executed, said Vic Ing, president, Alliance Industrial Solutions. Ing’s company helps pair area workers with companies.

“The issue is whether the money is available,” Ing said. “You can have a worker making $10 to $12, but they lack that certain skill level to go farther. So, how do you get them to the skill level they need, where they can potentially work and make maybe $10 to $20 an hour. Opportunities where someone can learn while the work, or earn while they learn are always a plus.”

There is also evidence of rare bipartisan agreement, at least on the value of apprenticeships, which generally combine state and federal government money with support from universities and companies looking to train people for specific jobs. In some cases, students split their time between school and work, and the companies pay some portion of wages and tuition.

The budget compromise funding the federal government through September passed this month with $95 million for apprenticeship grants, an increase of $5 million — in part to increase the number of women apprentices.

Trump’s “skinny” — or abbreviated — budget blueprint released in March proposes a 21 percent cut in the Labor Department budget, but also pledges to help states expand apprenticeship, an evidence-based approach to preparing workers for jobs. His more detailed, or “fat,” budget, is due out next week and is expected to contain more details.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.