Features, Law and Politics, National


February 26, 2018

By Jane LaTour

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the shadow. 

T.S. Eliot

“The Hollow Men”

Populist B.S.

Along the campaign trail, Donald Trump tossed out many promises to working-class constituents. Since winning the White House, most of the achievements affecting this core constituency have landed on the negative side of the ledger. During the past thirteen months, the President and his administration have unveiled a long list of decidedly anti-worker decisions.

One example will suffice: Just as black lung, the fatal coal miners’ disease, is making a strong reappearance — “We’ve gone from having nearly eradicated this in the mid-1990s to the highest concentration of cases that anyone has ever seen,” said NIOSH epidemiologist Scott Laney—David Zatezalo, Trump’s choice to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration, was confirmed by the Senate, despite his lousy safety record. While Zatezalo was serving as chairman of Rhino mines in West Virginia, OSHA issued nearly $2.1 million in fines for 160 workplace safety or health violations at Rhino mines, since the beginning of 2005.

However, on the face of it, one of the President’s proposals looks like a good idea—to expand apprenticeship opportunities. In June 2017, President Trump unveiled the “Apprenticeship and Workforce of Tomorrow” program. The plan calls for the creation of 4.5 million new apprenticeships within five years, about a ten-fold increase in the current number. Fulfilling this dream will require much more than a signature on an Executive Order.

What’s so appealing about apprenticeships? Apprentices earn as they learn. They get a livable wage while acquiring a skill, a skill that’s transportable and in demand. Since, as the baby boomers are rapidly ageing out of skilled jobs, the Millennial generation is not that interested in pursuing careers in the trades. Enrollment in vocational education has dropped, as has the educational commitment to vocation education programs, while the opioid epidemic is sapping the workforce, and a common complaint from employers emphasizes the deep-seated skills problem and lack of job readiness. Millions of job opportunities will become available for those individuals with the talent and skill to fill them.

Some look to Germany as a model, since it has a long tradition of training its workers. They employ a system of vocational training and apprenticeships that encompasses fully half of German youth, and prepares their workforce for over 300 occupations.  These range from the skilled blue-collar trades to white collar occupations such as administrative jobs, professional engineers, and technology specialists. Even German bakers learn their trade within the vocational system. While fewer than 5 percent of American youth train as apprentices, in Germany, the figure is closer to 60 percent.

However, as is usually the case when we look to Europe for comparisons, there are vast differences between the U.S. and other countries, such as Germany. First and foremost, European countries, including Germany, have a high rate of unionization.  The standards and certification, as per a law enacted in 1969, are formulated by an agreement of unions and management. Unlike the U. S., regulation is not a dirty word in Germany. Strict regulations and standards of certification are imposed. Another essential component that differs is funding. Both the German government and German employers, including the major corporations, are deeply committed to financing the system. Estimates for corporate / employer contributions range from $25,000 per apprentice to more than $80,000, according to Tamar Jacoby, writing in The Atlantic, while the German state pays for the tuition. It’s been a long time since American corporations have invested heavily in their workforces.

The price tag for Donald Trump’s apprenticeship proposal is $200 million. This figure, while absurdly inadequate to train a new generation of workers, flies in the face of the president’s proposed budget, with cuts to the Department of Labor’s funding by 21 percent, along with other cuts to training and employment services. In fact, the $200 million allotted for the new workforce development program is arrived at by pulling funding from already existing job-training programs. This is a short synopsis of the issues facing such a program. Suffice it to say that, while the Germans spend billions preparing their workforce, we are being treated to another instance of populist B.S.


February 26, 2018

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