Expanding apprenticeship and vocational education are a priority of the Trump administration, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday in a meeting of the Department of Labor's specially chartered Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion.
"Apprenticeship expansion is a priority for President Trump, as he demonstrated by establishing the task force last summer," DeVos said. "In the State of the Union address, he called on everyone, not just the Department of Education, or Labor, or Congress, or Washington, everyone to invest in workforce development, and job training, and great vocational schools so our students and future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential."
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The task force was chartered in accordance with a June executive order, and is now jointly chaired by DeVos, Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Other members represent a diverse group of educational, labor and industry interests, focused around the question of how to diversify skills education in the U.S. economy.
Acosta cited the growing "skills gap," the disparity between the demand for labor with certain skills and the supply of that labor, as the reason for the task force's creation.
"The skills gap is real. It's nearly 6 million individuals, and moving quickly is deeply appreciated by all," Acosta said.
A recent analysis from the Manpower Group, a staffing firm which every year conducts a "talent shortage survey," found that 46 percent of U.S. employers reported having difficulty filling jobs in 2016. "Skilled trade workers," a category defined by Manpower, represented the hardest jobs to fill in the U.S. from 2009 through 2016.
The Department of Labor points to a number of factors driving this "skills gap." Those include: An aging skilled workforce, trouble attracting new talent pools, a mismatch between workers' skills and their credentials, insufficient advancement in talent to keep up with industry's fast pace of development, and a lack of workforce training.
These problems, Secretary DeVos emphasized in her opening statement, must be addressed in order to encourage more successful American workers.
"America must do better to prepare our students for success in the 21st-century economy. We must answer the call to invest in individual students and expand access to more education pathways," she said.
This concept of expanding "pathways" is a notable component of President Donald Trump's original executive order constituting the task force, calling as it does for the federal government to "provide more affordable pathways to secure, high-paying jobs by promoting apprenticeships and effective workforce development programs, while easing the regulatory burden on such programs and reducing or eliminating taxpayer support for ineffective workforce development programs."
Tuesday's task force meeting focused on how to make vocational education and apprenticeships a more appealing and successful model for both would-be students and would-be employers. Subcommittees reports focused on both groups emphasized the need to better match employers' needs with students' skills, making sure that educators know what employers will pay for.
The task force also discussed the value of mentorship programs and paid-work experience, which would allow future employees to make a living while learning valuable workforce skills. DeVos, in her opening remarks, mentioned the need to make current educational credentials, which do not necessarily signal an employee's real skills, more informative to employers.
"Credentials send important signals to employers. We need to reconsider whether they match what employers need and what employers think those signals mean," DeVos said.
Marc Morial, President of the National Urban League, offered a comment early in the meeting about how important he saw apprenticeships as being to the young, predominantly African American people his organization advocates for.
"What excites me about this and what I believe the opportunity is in the apprenticeship arena, is that we have many, many young Americans who have in some cases marginally connected to the workforce," Morial said. "Being marginally connected to the workforce, the way to get them into the workforce is not only by connecting them to a job, but connecting them to an opportunity in which they can enhance their skills. So they have a chance to move into sustainable employment on a long-term basis."