It’s not much of a sound bite or campaign slogan, but the Trump administration’s new focus on apprenticeships may be one of its sounder economic ideas yet.
President Trump and his team (or, who knows, maybe just his team) have declared it to be “workforce development week,” with a special focus on apprenticeships. To better train workers for the jobs employers need to fill, Trump is ordering federal agencies to sharpen certain job-training programs, especially in sectors where private training is scarce. The Labor Dept. will also probe better ways to promote apprenticeships, and get back to Trump on that. “Americans want to work,” Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta told reporters on June 12. “American companies want to hire. The issue is a mismatch between available jobs and prospective employees’ job skills.”
It’s a modest commitment, but the Trump message, at least, is unambiguously correct. Trump’s economic plan, up until now, has centered on divisive and perhaps self-defeating ideas such as punitive tariffs on imports, a sharp rollback of environmental regulations and tax cuts that balloon the $20 trillion national debt. Opposition to such measures from virtually all Congressional Democrats, and some Republicans, limits the prospects for meaningful legislation, while fomenting partisan rancor.
Apprenticeships and job training, by contrast, generate almost no partisan bickering, and mainstream economists generally approve. Helping workers get the newest, most relevant skills makes them more productive and sometimes keeps them employed when they’d otherwise be on the dole. With technology rapidly remaking the nature of work, it’s more important than ever for workers to remain relevant (and probably harder, too).
Trump is actually borrowing from President Obama by calling for better training for workers, though Trump, of course, can claim special affection for the persona of the apprentice. Trump doesn’t want any new funding for job training, but he’d double spending on such programs, to $200 million, by shifting money from other unspecified parts of the budget. That conflicts with Trump’s broader federal budget, which would slash federal spending on job-training programs, from $2.7 billion per year to $1.6 billion, a 40% cut. The obvious question: Is Trump serious? How can he call for better job training while cutting federal funding?
It’s possible Trump could cut and even kill federal job-training programs—which aren’t universally viewed as effective—while finding better ways to address the skills mismatch preventing workers who need jobs from filling jobs that are actually open. But it’s also possible Trump’s “workforce development week” is just lip service that won’t be followed by any serious action.
Right before workforce development week—does anybody remember?— Trump announced “infrastructure week,” with a passel of proposals that will be totally forgotten unless Trump puts some presidential muscle behind the happy talk. The single biggest idea Trump touted during his infrastructure week was a plan to privatize part of the air-traffic-control system, which would help speed the rollout of badly needed technology. But if that “proposal” isn’t followed by actual legislation and a determined strategy to get it passed, Trump critics will be proven right and his weekly dips into policy will end up as nothing more than smoke screens meant to distract from ever-present scandal.
Trump is lucky, because the economy will probably continue growing whether he helps it along or not. Profits are healthy, job growth is strong, and companies will find workarounds if needed workers aren’t available. But presidential proposals have the shelf life of milk if the president doesn’t fight for them. So if you don’t hear about apprenticeships after this week, you’l know why.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman