Raytheon Technologies rolled out the country’s first ever industry-recognized apprenticeship program in October 2020—a move hailed by the administration
at the time as a major milestone in expanding apprenticeships and creating more job opportunities for American workers.
But the problems it aimed to solve—and the debate it kicked off about the role of government and industry in modern American apprenticeships—are still highly resonant.
“It’s good to be talking about IRAPs again because it really is an instructive policy discussion, even though we’re in a massively different situation now,” says Michael Prebil
, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Education & Labor at New America.
Industry-recognized apprenticeship programs, or IRAPs, were controversial
from the get go. The stated aim was to cut “red tape” and let companies register programs more quickly—but critics saw an end run around quality standards and organized labor.
Introduced by the Trump administration, the programs were not directly approved by the Department of Labor or most state apprenticeship offices but by third-party organizations, such as industry associations, community college systems, and nonprofits. Those “standards recognition entities
” had to get federal authorization and were intended to function something like accreditors do in the higher education system. Congressional Democrats
and others worried about quality control and a lack of requirements, such as mandatory wage increases for workers, that are included in the federally registered program.
“If you want to start a high-quality and in-depth training program, thoughtful, impactful program design takes effort and there’s really no way to regulate that away or make a policy change that changes that,” says Deborah Kobes
, interim vice president of the Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning at JFF.
Structural Challenges: Whether they liked or loathed IRAPs, experts pretty much universally agree that the registered apprenticeship system in the United States is clunky.
Companies and other organizations can register apprenticeships directly with the Labor Department or through state apprenticeship agencies, many of which have distinct requirements and processes. Either route is time intensive.
, a researcher who’s spent much of his career studying apprenticeships, thought IRAPs had the potential to cut down on red tape and delays in the system. As it is now, he’s seen companies wait as long as nine months to get approval in some states,
even with experienced intermediaries offering technical assistance. At a minimum, he would have liked
IRAPs to have continued long enough—and with enough funding—to have had real evidence of the model’s impact.
“The big lesson learned is that we need to do things on a more bipartisan basis, because there is broad acknowledgment that there are structural issues with the registered apprenticeship system
that make it less effective than it might otherwise be,” says Lerman, an institute fellow
in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute.
Beyond Registration: Getting a program registered, however, is just one of many challenges of running an apprenticeship in the United States. And it’s probably not the biggest issue.
The industry-recognized program, Prebil says, got rid of a lot of standards to only make registration somewhat faster.
“IRAPs made it marginally easier to register your program through another entity,” he says. “But you still have to recruit, still have to put together a training program, still have to run it. Systems that make it easier to do all of those other things are what’s really critical.”