Two 21st-Century Legislators Think Getting America Back to Work Requires This Very Old Idea

Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are from two different political parties and some of the youngest members of the “world’s great deliberative body.”  They are also working together to help provide new federal support for a decidedly old-fashioned institution: apprenticeships.

For a couple years now, Scott and Booker have been pushing the LEAP Act, which would provide a tax credit to support companies that offer apprenticeships recognized by the Department of Labor or by state-level regulators.

Apprenticeships fill the same role they did when Paul Revere was hiring them in Boston in the 1700s: They’re distinguished from other forms of training by the fact that they pay the apprentice compensation ($15 an hour for federally recognized programs) while providing individuals a  chance to learn on the job with direct instruction from a superior.

Today, there aren’t quite as many opportunities in silver smithing, but there are a wide range of industries offering programs from building trades like carpentry and pipefitting to health care jobs like dental assistants and child development aides.

The senators pushing for the bill note that apprenticeships can be a huge boost to earnings throughout one’s life: A 2012 Mathematica study found that graduates of registered apprenticeship programs earn $240,000 more over the course of their lifetimes than comparable workers.

The senators pushing for the bill note that apprenticeships can be a huge boost to earnings throughout one’s life

That’s not as big as the premium for a college degree, but it’s pretty big — and it comes with no risk of crushing debt. It is worth taking the premium with a grain of salt, though. Each new registered apprentice isn’t necessarily going to see that boon, as it’s hard to measure people who complete a demanding program like apprenticeship with the people who don’t do it but might be enticed into participating by programs like the LEAP Act.

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(Source: U.S. Department of Labor)

Sounds good, you might say but why do we need another federal tax credit to encourage something that’s supposedly such a good deal for businesses and workers already?

A big reason is the federal government already invests billions of dollars into supporting other kinds of post-high-school education. And yet those dollars essentially go to one place — colleges and universities — that is not just an incredibly costly form of training, but that also doesn’t make sense for everybody.

the federal government already invests billions of dollars into supporting other kinds of post-high-school education.

So conservative economists such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Strain are sympathetic to the idea of more support for vocational education. Government has helped create the culture where everyone aims to go to college, he points out, and yet when you look at student debt numbers and dropout rates, there are clearly many students getting a bad deal from college.

On the other end, “there are people who don’t get any more education after high school who should [do so],” he says, who can acquire more skills, do more complicated work, and earn a lot more.

Both of those groups would be well-served by apprenticeships and other approaches to providing technical skills, though of course the federal government would want to be wary of overinvesting in this specific type of program as it has in traditional higher education.

More broadly, Strain points out, there’s a role for government here not just to level the playing field, but also because some businesses resist making investments in skilled workers, for a variety of reasons.

“If a company wants a welder, they want someone who can weld on day one,” Strain said, partly because of the regulations government impose that make hiring and firing riskier and more expensive.

“If a company wants a welder, they want someone who can weld on day one”

Fact is, the LEAP Act is only a modest start. The senators propose to pay for it by cutting the budget for printing federal documents.

If this program is going to be scaled up or a larger apprenticeship strategy is going to be pursued, Strain says, the sensible thing would be to get funding for it from existing programs for jobs training and higher education that haven’t been shown to be successful.

Scott is not the only Republican who has drawn attention to this issue, as well: One of Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) favorite lines during the 2016 presidential campaign was that America needs “more welders and less philosophers.” Rubio proposed simplifying existing federal programs that support kids going to college, and expanding them to cover federally qualified job-training programs.

One of Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) favorite lines during the 2016 presidential campaign was that America needs “more welders and less philosophers.”

Apprenticeships won’t be a silver-bullet to remedy stagnating wages, lower rates of employment for men or the ballooning cost of higher education. But Republican legislators like Tim Scott and Marco Rubio are looking for a range of ways to recognize that vocational education should be on even ground with traditional higher education.

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