The U.S. Department of Labor released final regulations this week establishing a new system to evaluate apprenticeships that could make it easier for employers and education providers to create their own programs.
Starting in mid-May, the Labor Department will allow several kinds of entities — including colleges, trade associations and employers — to monitor and establish apprenticeship programs.
The new regulations could aid the Trump administration's long-running goal of expanding apprenticeships in the U.S. But some observers worry they could open the door for lower-quality programs.
The rules were spurred by a 2017 executive order directing the Labor Department to set up a new system that would make it easier for third parties, such as trade associations and nonprofits, to develop apprenticeship programs.
These new Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs) mean to increase the number of apprentices in fields that don't typically have them, such as health care, cybersecurity and telecommunications, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said in a statement.
IRAPs will include a paid work component and lead to an industry-recognized credential. And they could be a boon for community colleges, many of which have been aiming to expand their apprenticeship programs.
However, some policy experts have advocated for the Labor Department to expand and improve its current model for recognizing apprenticeships, rather than create a new one. "There was a real opportunity to reform the system that is," said Brent Parton, deputy director of New America's Center on Education and Skills, in an interview with Education Dive.
Under the current system, the Labor Department or a state apprenticeship agency ensures apprenticeships are meeting quality standards.
The new system, however, will let the Labor Department delegate some of its oversight responsibilities to other parties that it will oversee, called standards recognition entities (SREs). It isn't replacing the old model but will be another way to create apprenticeship programs.
However, some obervers also say the new option doesn't have enough safeguards. Parton said it is "sufficiently vague" to spur innovation but could harm workers if they end up in poor quality programs.
IRAPs will have the flexibility to award credit for prior learning and use competency-based education. The move drew praise last summer from Walter Bumphus, president of the American Assocation of Community Colleges, which represents more than 1,000 two-year institutions.
Yet some Congressional Democrats criticized the new system, arguing that it could create inconsistent quality among apprenticeship programs.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chair of the House's education committee, noted in a statement that the model may set up apprenticeship programs that aren't recognized from coast to coast. "The Department of Labor is walking away from this clear record of success and wasting taxpayer money by setting up an entirely untested and unproven system," he said.
Although the Labor Department previously proposed that it would prohibit SREs from recognizing their own apprenticeships, the new regulations allow them to do so. "It's the fox guarding the henhouse," Parton said.
The agency acknowledged this could create "actual or potential conflicts of interest," but it contended certain application procedures would help reduce that risk.
The Trump administration has made other moves to expand use of apprenticeships in the U.S. Last summer, the Labor Department granted nearly $184 million to colleges and their private-sector partners to support training some 85,000 apprentices in the health care, advanced manufacturing and information technology fields.
Colleges told Education Dive at the time that they planned to use the money to launch new programs and give students stipends for books, supplies and industry certification exams.