White House presses agencies to use apprenticeships for skills-based hiring

Along with promoting apprenticeships, the new executive order re-establishes labor-management forums between federal unions and agency managers.

Agencies have spent years trying to shift away from college degree requirements for federal jobs — now, the White House is now directing agencies to take things up a notch by using more apprenticeships.

An executive order President Joe Biden signed Wednesday gives agencies a score of new requirements to try to make the government a leading example in skills-based hiring. The recruitment practice has employers focus on job candidates’ hands-on skills rather than their education.

Specifically, agencies will have to begin taking better advantage of the Labor Department’s registered apprenticeship program, according to the executive order. The goal is to have agencies then convert apprentices into full-time federal employees — an effort that could also ramp up skills-based hiring and address mission-critical skills gaps.

Agencies should “explore what federal jobs we have that can be filled by the highly skilled folks who have been trained in apprenticeship programs — and not just give these jobs only to people with a four-year college degree,” Vice President Kamala Harris said Wednesday at a press event in Madison, Wisconsin.

Labor’s registered apprenticeship program offers paid positions, classroom experience and other benefits as federal apprentices gain skills to become qualified for a full-time job. On average, 90% of apprentices who complete a registered apprenticeship are able to retain employment with an average annual salary of $80,000, according to Apprenticeship.gov.

“Registered apprenticeships are a proven strategy to expand equitable training pathways to good-paying jobs, including union jobs,” the White House said in a fact sheet about the new executive order.

Under the executive order, Labor as well as the Office of Personnel Management will take the lead on a lot of the work to scale up and improve the use of federal apprenticeships through the program.

The White House told OPM and Labor to look at how to remove barriers along the pathway from apprenticeships to full-time federal jobs. Within the next six months, the two agencies will have to create a report detailing what types of federal occupations could benefit from an elevated use of apprenticeships to help agencies determine where to increase the opportunities.

A new federal working group, established as part of the executive order, will consider how to most effectively scale up apprenticeship opportunities at agencies. The working group will also be tasked with helping agencies figure out how apprenticeships could help with hiring and skills needs, as well as retention.

The executive order may also serve as an avenue to work toward the Biden administration’s goals for improving diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) in the federal workforce.

Agencies “can scale and expand registered apprenticeship programs to modernize and broaden avenues to federal jobs, thereby improving access to opportunities for underserved workers,” Biden said in the order.

The Labor Department has already made other attempts to improve the program as well. In a proposed rule from January, the agency outlined plans to try to expand registered apprenticeships while also making them more equitable.

But as it’s written in the proposed rule, the Brookings Institution, a non-profit research group, said that Labor’s efforts may not do enough to bring apprenticeships to the scale the administration is hoping for.

“Outside of a few narrow industries and occupations in the U.S., awareness of apprenticeships as a learning option is very low and plagued with misconceptions,” Brookings fellow Annelies Goger said in an article Wednesday. “Most Americans are unlikely to consider an apprenticeship without direct outreach.”

That means as agencies take on bigger apprenticeship goals, they’ll also have to massively ramp up their outreach efforts.

New labor-management forum requirements

Along with aiming to scale up federal apprenticeships, the executive order also officially re-establishes “labor-management forums” governmentwide.

Agencies and federal unions have used labor-management forums for years as a tool to address employee concerns and aim to improve the workplace. Union leaders and agency managers meet periodically as part of these forums to identify, discuss and resolve issues not always covered under collective bargaining agreements.

The forums had been around for years, up until a 2017 executive order during the Trump administration disbanded them.

In 2021, under the Biden administration, OPM once again green-lit labor-management forums. But the use of the forums was not required until Biden signed the new executive order, officially rescinding the 2017 order from Trump in the process.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has said the forums can help review employer practices, improve working conditions, increase morale and solicit feedback. But FMCS said unions and management should have “realistic expectations” on the functionality of the forums.

“Both sides should expect to have difficult or challenging conversations that may not always end in agreement,” FCMS said in a fact sheet from 2022. “You should expect to resolve tough issues if both labor and management stay the course and avoid well-defined pitfalls that may impact the success of the forum.”

Moving forward, during forum meetings, agencies and unions should consider changes in employee satisfaction, manager satisfaction and organizational performance, the new executive order from Biden said.

For the last couple of years, even without a requirement, unions such as the National Treasury Employees Union encouraged their bargaining units to maintain the forums. Now with the new executive order, and an official re-establishment of the forums, NTEU is hoping to see the labor-management tool become even more common among agencies.

“These forums provide frontline employees with a more meaningful voice in agency operations and foster discussions about improving the effectiveness of government services,” NTEU National President Doreen Greenwald said in a statement. “It is our experience that pre-decisional input inherent in conversations between labor and management is a productive means to give employees a say in agency decisions, solve problems in a non-adversarial way, address workplace issues that hinder efficiency and improve services to the American people.”

Greenwald said the forums can also create opportunities to resolve labor-management disputes quickly and reduce costs by avoiding litigation.

The American Federation of Government Employees similarly expressed support for the re-establishment of the forums now in a more official capacity.

“The creation of labor-management forums inside federal agencies will bring agency management and front-line workers together, fostering better relationships and dialogue, and improving our ability to identify and resolve issues,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement. “Such forums will be essential to building a more effective, efficient federal government.”

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