Posted July 3, 2018, 9:21 AM
· On-the-job training touted as pipeline to diverse workforce by Labor Department contractor auditor
· Contractor groups, attorneys tentatively optimistic but flag food for thought
The Labor Department’s plan to rev up its apprenticeship program platform as a way for federal contractors to increase their workforce diversity may be easier said than done.
Promoting apprenticeships as an affordable pathway to sustainable jobs and to close the skills gap in the U.S. workforce is a central policy of the White House and Labor Department. The Apprenticeship Expansion Task Force disseminated a final report to President Donald Trump on the topic and the Labor Department rolled out a new apprenticeship website in the spring.
And given Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta ’s commitment to apprenticeship programs, it isn’t surprising that Ondray Harris, Acosta’s choice to lead the DOL’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, is on board with that vision, Alissa Horvitz of Roffman Horvitz in McLean, Va., said. Harris was with the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration prior to becoming the OFCCP’s director.
But the OFCCP’s central mission is that of a law enforcement agency. The office annually audits about 1,000 federal contractor facilities to ensure compliance with certain federal laws prohibiting discrimination in employment practices, such as hiring, firing, promotions, and unequal pay. Promoting the voluntary use of apprenticeship programs seems like an odd fit for the OFCCP’s enforcement wheelhouse.
And yet, “it seems as though any time the national office gets a chance to talk with us, they ask if apprenticeship programs are something our clients are interested in,” Horvitz told Bloomberg Law. She advises contractors on their equal employment opportunity obligations for the OFCCP.
The office also encourages affirmative action compliance in addition to its anti-discrimination enforcement. Apprenticeships could support that portion of its mission—helping federal contractors employ veterans, disabled persons, and minority workers who may not have the exact skills needed to hit the ground running.
Contractors are open to the idea of apprenticeship programs, and intrigued with how they could lead to a more congenial relationship with the OFCCP, but will need some convincing before sinking resources into launching programs worthy of certification by the federal government.
Harris and senior adviser Craig Leen have spoken at an array of conferences coast to coast extolling the OFCCP’s faith in apprenticeships, but the agency declined to comment for this story.
Piecing Together the Program Puzzle
Harris’ and Leen’s official schedules—obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests—indeed show that the office is devoting time and energy to the development of an apprenticeship program. The schedules also show a particular interest in Microsoft’s recruitment programs.
Microsoft has engaged in discussions with OFCCP leadership about the company’s “broad workforce development efforts, including apprenticeships,” as well as the agency’s “ambition to expand the company’s apprenticeship efforts in the U.S.,” a Microsoft spokesperson confirmed to Bloomberg Law in a July 2 email. Two of Microsoft’s apprenticeship and recruiting programs are DOL-accredited, the spokesperson said.
The OFCCP is seeking to build out a pilot apprenticeship program of about a dozen companies, according to Leen’s remarks at the Institute for Workplace Equality Annual Summit in May. A panel discussion at the time implied that those companies that developed apprenticeship programs would be free from compliance audits for a number of years while they work out the kinks in getting the programs off the ground.
Apprenticeships were also included in Leen’s remarks at the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity’s June conference, Horvitz said. Based on the Town Hall Action Plan and conversations with agency officials and her colleagues, Horvitz said the office is looking at giving some sort of audit reprieve for contractors that certify their voluntary compliance with the OFCCP’s requirements, but not necessarily for those that set up apprenticeship programs.
The office seems to be in the midst of evaluating which regulations could impede the increased use of apprenticeship programs and how they can create incentives for contractors to build them, Michael Eastman said. He’s the senior vice president for policy and assistant general counsel at the Center for Workplace Compliance in Washington.
If the OFCCP finds itself able to incentivize contractors to create apprenticeship programs, contractors could use those programs to address their placement goals and create availability for candidates they seek, Candee Chambers, executive director of DirectEmployers in Indianapolis, told Bloomberg Law.
“How can you meet your placement goals if you’re not hiring the right candidates? And through apprenticeships, you’re training those candidates in the exact way you want things done,” Chambers said.
CWC and DirectEmployers are employer organizations that inform and assist their respective contractor members in meeting their equal employment opportunity obligations.
Considerations and Concerns
There are five core components to apprenticeship programs under Labor Department standards: “direct business involvement, on-the-job training, related instruction, rewards for skill gains, and completion resulting in a national occupation credential.”
Expecting contractors to implement those standards will take money, time, and trust.
“My clients have a budget, and that budget is set in advance. There aren’t a lot of discretionary dollars lying around. A good apprenticeship program takes time to get off the ground, and I think corporations move more slowly than policy makers would like,” Horvitz said.
There had been a whisper that establishing apprenticeship programs could be rolled into contractor conciliation agreements—the legal contracts the OFCCP and contractors reach to settle allegations of discrimination or other compliance violations stemming from an audit—but some stakeholders don’t think that’s practical.
Chambers points out that there are a lot of specifics that go into setting up one of these programs that make them less than ideal for terms in a conciliation agreement: where a program should be housed, whether it should be run through a community college, who should set the learning goals, and what types of internal training should be conducted.
However they come about, this may be a particularly good time for apprenticeship programs. Chambers thinks the aging workforce is ripe for mentor status, leveraging older workers’ insight and past experiences not yet fully maximized in the current workforce training scheme.
Apprenticeship programs would be easier to implement in some industries than others. Construction, manufacturing, and production job sites could be ripe for training programs. But the office also audits health-care and higher education facilities, which may be less conducive to on-the-job training.
The final hurdle would be earning contractors’ confidence in rolling out a nationwide apprenticeship incentive program, according to Eastman. Contractors and the OFCCP have had a contentious relationship for years.
That relationship is mending under the new administration, which is more business-friendly across the Labor Department as a whole.
“Contractors like the creativity coming out of the OFCCP. They’re open to new ideas,” Eastman said.
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