Trump Move on Job Training Brings ‘Skills Gap’ Debate to the Fore

Corporate groups hailed the idea of expanding apprenticeship programs and making them more flexible, arguing that apprenticeships are a reliable path to good-paying jobs in sectors like retail and hospitality for those who could no longer support themselves in production sectors like manufacturing.

“We applaud the Department of Labor and the administration for being willing to look at how to craft this in a way that brings apprenticeships to a new range of audiences,” said Rob Gifford, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, which oversees the industry group’s apprenticeship programs.

Mr. Gifford gave credit to the Obama administration for making industries like his eligible for apprenticeship funding. The restaurant industry group won a contract worth up to about $9.75 million under the Obama-era program to create apprenticeships that would run from six months to two years and help candidates for management positions acquire skills in such areas as accounting and sanitation practices.

But Mr. Gifford said that streamlining regulations could make apprenticeship programs even more effective.

The administration’s interest in apprenticeships stands in contrast to the cutbacks for other forms of job training in its budget proposal, involving far larger sums. The Association of Community College Trustees said that while it welcomed Thursday’s move, it remained worried about “the severe cuts proposed to federal work force and education programs.”

Underlying the relatively modest size and scope of Mr. Trump’s proposal is a much bigger idea about why workers who have lost good-paying jobs that do not require a college degree are struggling to find work at comparable wages.

In the eyes of the president and many corporate leaders, the crux of the problem is skills — the proposition that employers are eager to fill millions of good-paying jobs that workers lack the skills to perform.

“The U.S. faces a serious skills gap,” Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta said during a call with reporters last week, pointing to six million vacant jobs — the most since the department starting keeping track in the early 2000s. The vacancies were especially abundant in manufacturing, information technology and health care, he said.

If the unemployed could acquire the necessary skills through apprenticeships or course work, the thinking goes, companies could quickly fill…

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