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Workforce development: a way to help America.

In the nation, including in Arkansas, the need for a skilled workforce is already here and is growing exponentially as baby boomers begin to leave the workplace. On June 15, President Trump signed Executive Order 13801, seeking to expand our nation's workforce development programs and significantly increase the number of skilled workers. The president recognized what most businesses already know --there is a serious shortage of skilled workers. Without new and innovative methods to develop the next generation, our economy cannot efficiently operate, let alone grow.

The order states that federal policy will "provide more affordable pathways to secure, high paying jobs by promoting apprenticeships and effective workforce development programs, while easing the regulatory burden on such programs... " This sentence alone hits the nail on the head.

Let's start with "provide more affordable pathways." Student debt is a problem facing millions of American families. According to Forbes and the Institute for College Access & Success, total 2016 student loan debt was $1.31 trillion, making it the second-highest debt category behind mortgages. Someone close to you is likely saddled with this burden. In addition, college dropout rates have risen over the last decade, leaving many facing a mountain of debt without a degree.

The idea that a college degree is the be-all and end-all no longer makes sense. Apprenticeships, both industry-recognized and government-defined, are affordable ways to "earn while you learn." For many high school students, veterans and others, this is a way to find a career, not just find a job.

When you combine classroom training that covers topics such as safety procedures, computer operations and mathematics with real-world, on-the-job training, trainees can see that career goals are attainable. In many cases, apprentices graduate from programs with in-demand skills, beginning at $50,000 per year plus benefits.

This leads into the next point in the president's order: securing high paying jobs. The opportunities are limitless.

Building your career, though, starts at the ground level. The Executive Order encourages the private sector to help make that happen. In many industries today, the majority of training and workforce development occurs outside the parameters of what the Department of Labor has established as "registered apprenticeship" programs.

As businesses know, government regulation and rigid, single-craft focus has led industry to "drive the bus" on training. Operating under principles that increase efficiency and promote innovation, many companies and their industry associations have developed programs to train workers to be able to deliver return on investment almost immediately.

Instead of teaching to a single craft, and requiring up to four years of instruction, private industry has the flexibility to offer programs that fit all levels of skills. Under this model, one trainee can learn multiple crafts or skills, thereby becoming more attractive on the job market. Furthermore, trainees will gain on-the-job experience while helping their companies run more efficiently. The days of the education system dissing the blue-collar worker as someone less worthy than a college graduate are over.

In the executive order, successful programs that graduate-skilled workers would be able to obtain DOL certification by an industry-recognized organization. This means that graduates of private-sector programs could add DOL recognition to their list of accomplishments.

Not only does this new initiative help to create paths toward successful and rewarding careers, but it also gives many businesses the opportunity to work on projects they are now unable to do. Due to unfair federal laws, many small contractors are shut out of working on government contracts because their training programs are not defined by the federal government. If small businesses were able to get government certification while continuing to produce top talent, they would face one less barrier to job creation and business expansion.

Even industries without established programs are helped by this order. If manufacturing, information technology, health care and hospitality follow the apprenticeship model set forth by the construction industry, we could see an enormous boon to our economy. Not only would these industries foster and retain top talent, but they would help create millions of new pathways to successful careers. Now that would be making America great again.

J. Bruce Cross is a labor and employment management attorney with Cross Gunter Witherspoon & Galchus of Little Rock. Email him at

Caption: J. Bruce Cross
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Author:Cross, J. Bruce
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 7, 2017
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