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Opinion: An Obama 'Apprenticeship' that Trump Should Continue

Opinion: The Registered Apprenticeship program may be the only thing Republicans and Democrats agreed on in 2016, and Trump would do well to keep it.
Image: Workers assemble built-in appliances at the Whirlpool manufacturing plant in Cleveland.
File photo of workers assembling built-in appliances at the Whirlpool manufacturing plant in Cleveland, Tennessee Aug. 21, 2013. Christopher Aluka Berry / REUTERS file

Donald J. Trump is going to have a busy 2017. He’s staying on as executive producer of “Celebrity Apprentice” while becoming the 45th Chief Executive of the United States. If there’s one redeeming quality the president-elect possesses, it’s that he’s never met a marketing opportunity he could resist. I have an offer he can’t refuse.

Sitting on my old desk at the Department of Labor right now is a memo detailing a ready-made, low risk, high reward and bipartisan federal jobs program that bears a similar name to Trump’s television program. It’s called Registered Apprenticeship.

Ammar Campa-NajjarKevin Kennedy

“Apprenticeships,” explains U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez in a statement, “are a time-tested, earn-while-you-learn model that helps create opportunities for American workers to succeed while providing employers with the reliable pipeline of skilled talent they need to thrive in today’s global economy.”

It almost sounds too good to be true: Someone hires you, trains you and unlike most internships, you’re earning a living wage while learning. And unlike college, apprenticeship is “education without the debt,” as Secretary Perez frames it, with a guaranteed job at the end of the program. Apprentices gain while they train.

Today, apprenticeship is not just the preferred recruitment model for employers in traditional industries like construction and manufacturing, but also for a diversified set of high-growth sectors, including information technology, financial services, advanced manufacturing and health care. It’s the answer for the blue collar worker who sees times are changing and wants to retool, learn new skills, and remain employable in today’s economy.

This program may be the only thing Republicans and Democrats agreed on in 2016. For the first time ever last year, Congress made a bipartisan decision to appropriate over $90 million specifically toward financing apprenticeship programs.

To date, the Obama administration has invested more than $300 million to deliver on President Obama’s challenge to double the number of registered apprenticeships within five years. Double and diversify, that’s the future of apprenticeship.

Trump and his team should try to surpass our goal. Apprenticeship is a win-win for both job seekers and businesses alike.

The average apprentice earns above $60,000 a year; that’s more than double the median individual income in America. Studies also show that for every dollar spent on apprenticeship, businesses get an average of $1.47 back in increased productivity and greater front-line innovation.

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These job training programs are part of why president-elect Trump is inheriting a far better economy than the one we inherited in 2008. If Trump really wants to make it morning in America for his 62 million supporters, he should invest aggressively in apprenticeship.

There’s an undeniable tailwind guiding our economy in the right direction. The economic headlines are good, but the trend lines are where the work needs to continue.

We’ve created almost 16 million jobs since 2010, so roughly eleven million more jobs exist today than compared to late 2007, before the Great Recession. If you look at the demographic breakdown, however, Hispanics secured more than half of those net new jobs. Other minority groups also gained millions more jobs than they lost during the recession. But white workers, who account for 78 percent of the labor force, lost more than 700,000 net jobs over the nine years. Why is that?

First, minority populations are growing more rapidly than their counterparts, so naturally jobs are trending in the same direction. Still, it's inaccurate to assume these populations aren’t struggling. American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest poverty rate (close to 30 percent), followed by African Americans (27 percent), Hispanics (26 percent), and whites (10 percent).

We need to attack the problem of poverty and unemployment on all fronts. That's why Secretary Perez's Labor Department issued a final rule on apprenticeship extending current protections against discrimination to include disability, age (40 years or older), genetic information and sexual orientation.

Second, the data shows the economy is growing in a way that favors specific regions, not races. Before a company invests in an area, one of the first criteria is whether the location will attract the most costumers.

Considering that 95 percent of the world’s consumer market exists outside the United States, businesses are trending towards areas that have a global reach, places that welcome tourism and are a direct flight or metro ride away, or at the very least freeway accessible. This is why America's big cities – which are densely and diversely populated – are enjoying a majority of the economic gains compared to rural areas which are predominantly white.

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We need to fix this. Like generations before us, one of the most defining issues of our time is ensuring that economic prosperity is broadly shared, across every geography and demography.

In an opinion piece penned by Secretary Tom Perez and Secretary Tom Vilsack, we see a promising trend emerging. With the cost-saving incentive to offshore jobs in sharp decline, businesses are seizing the opportunity to bring well-paying IT jobs to rural areas. Tech apprenticeships are working in all fifty states in places like central Jonesboro, Arkansas; Kearney, Nebraska; eastern Kentucky and Memphis, Tennessee where the highest poverty rate in the nation exists.

Apprenticeship can help the worker in rural America who was laid off because of forces beyond his control – technology that’s automated his job or a worker on the other side of the world who will do the job for half the cost. If the next administration invests the right way, he won’t have to leave his community for a big city job; the big city job will come to him.

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But as I learned from Secretary Perez, who makes frequent "house calls" to workers around the country, this problem isn’t just about the economy, it’s about empathy. That laid off worker’s job meant more than just a steady paycheck. For years, that factory worker broke down his body to build up his family, just like his father before. He knew if he worked hard and took on a few extra shifts during the holidays, he’d make and save enough for the ones he loved. He took pride in working with his hands, and hoped to pass down the family trade to his children. Every evening he’d pull up to the driveway just in time for dinner, rinse his oil-stained hands under the kitchen sink, and look at his children with eyes that said, “one day, these will be your hands."

That factory stored more than goods and supplies; it housed cherished memories and a revered history. It was a sacred place, once re-purposed during World War II, where his mother went to work to build the tanks and planes that joined his father on the shores of Normandy. It was a workplace and a place of worship. It was both a family and national monument.

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So it's not just about a factory worker losing his job — it’s about an American letting go of his dream. There are millions more just like him, whose dreams are being crushed by the rapid realities and demands of a 21st century global economy.

We can’t force businesses to hire workers for jobs they no longer need, but we also can't force people to give up on their dreams. As an apprentice, that factory worker will be creating the code and building the automated machine that once replaced him. And with tech jobs paying about 50 percent more than the average job, that paycheck would go a long way for his family.

Americans are a resilient people. By retooling and retraining our workers, we can help them reimagine their lives and cast their dreams anew.

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I’m proud of the work my colleagues and I did under President Obama’s leadership. Together, we implemented programs and policies that led to the most successful economic recovery in history. I can honestly say we left it all on the field, but there still remains a lot of unfinished work ahead.

The change promised eight years ago was always going to take longer than one presidency; it’s why many people don’t yet feel the benefits of an economic comeback they helped build. It’s why I hope the next presidency continues to build on the gains we’ve made until every community feels fully recovered.

I know we live in divided times, but I remain hopeful. Through every trial and every triumph, Americans have always found a way to come together in the end. We need to break down barriers and swing open the doors of opportunity, long enough and wide enough, so that our entire country can walk through and pave a path toward a unified future. Let us recommit ourselves, today and every day, to the common cause of building an America that works for everyone – state by state, community by community, one worker’s dream at a time.

Ammar Campa-Najjar is a former Obama administration official.

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