- - Friday, February 5, 2021

With the expanding vaccine distribution, all of us are hopeful that we will soon be on the other side of the public health and economic crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we do, though, jobs and jobs training need to be available so that Americans get back to work quickly. As the co-chair of the Skilled Workforce Caucus, I have seen firsthand professional training programs in my home state of Arkansas and in Michigan, the home state of my co-chair across the aisle, Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, and what I learned is that all opportunities need to be made available to everyone.

Unfortunately, that’s not what the Democrats have in mind with the National Apprenticeship Act (NAA) under House consideration this week. As written, the NAA makes the existing apprenticeship system — which is 80 years old — one of the only options for federally backed job training. The existing system needs improvement, but Congress should also make space for employer-led innovation and embrace new ideas to get more Americans back to work.

For example, I offered an amendment to this year’s iteration of the NAA, to swap out an “or” for an “and.” It may sound simple enough, but it has a significant impact on the availability of workforce training programs across the nation. Specifically, the bill requires partnership with a union for every training program, and even though union and non-union industry leaders are listed in the eligible entities for funding under Title II of the NAA, the bill does not treat both equally. 

The unintended consequence of the “and” in the legislation that separates non-union and union entities for the partnership requirement is that it creates a flawed unilateral approach to job training. The issue is that the federal government could see this as a requirement to partner with a union. My amendment changes the “and” to an “or” so that funding for job training will lean on the expertise of union or non-union industry. 

Most employees in the United States are not all employed by unions. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 12.1% of Americans are employed by unions. Democrats keep saying that our legislation needs to reflect America, and I share that commitment, but frankly, this legislation does not reflect the job market or the modern American workforce.

Partisan differences should not stand in the way of sincere efforts to create opportunities for all Americans during the current health and economic crisis. The fact that my amendment, a slight change in language seeks to find a solution that serves the interests of all working people, was defeated is an excellent example of the current lack of good faith work in today’s Congress. 

While my Republican colleagues and I do not support the NAA in its entirety, we are committed to creating a system that meets the needs of our current and future workforce. Congress needs to represent the people working the jobs that will require training every day. The Democrats’ choice to keep the bill “as-is” will hurt central Arkansas, where we have a significant non-unionized workforce, as other “right-to-work” states. 

It is not in America’s best interest to exclude Americans or industries from opportunities during a time when we need everyone on board to help our country economically recover. We must reform the registered apprenticeship system to provide all Americans with the promise of good employment opportunities for years to come. The House Democrats’ version of the NAA is not the answer.

• French Hill is a Republican U.S. representative from Arkansas.

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