American Workers Back in the Spotlight

On July 19th, 2018, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13845 to establish a National Council for the American Worker and launch a “Pledge to America’s Workers”, challenging American companies to commit to new training and apprenticeship programs over the next 5 years for 3.8 million workers.

Executive Orders – The New Hammer

As the old saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Well, in the current state of American political antipathy, Presidential Executive Order’s are the new hammer: the only tool in the tool box to try and get things done. With this, his 81st executive order (EO), President Trump is easily outpacing Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton in his executive ordering.

Political gridlock anyone?

So, what the heck are these executive orders anyway? The American Bar Association wrote this handy article to help us out:

An executive order is a signed, written, and published directive from the President of the United States that manages operations of the federal government. Every American president has issued at least one, totaling more than (as of this writing) 13,845 since George Washington took office in 1789.

Both executive orders and proclamations have the force of law, much like regulations issued by federal agencies.

Executive orders are not legislation; they require no approval from Congress, and Congress cannot simply overturn them. Congress may pass legislation that might make it difficult, or even impossible, to carry out the order, such as removing funding. Only a sitting U.S. President may overturn an existing executive order by issuing another executive order to that effect.

In other words, EO’s are a handy shortcut to circumnavigate the messy legislative process and proceed directly to Federal agency-esque rule making.

American Workers – Part 2 (yes, 2)

The purpose of Executive Order 18845 is to address the “skills crisis” that has led to over “6.7 million unfilled jobs”, a number that comes courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks these numbers from employer surveys on a monthly basis. The skills crisis has been brought about by changes is “technology, automation, and artificial intelligence” and an education system focused on training workers for “the economy of the past”.

So far so good…

To address this problem, the EO creates both an American Workforce Policy Advisory Board and a National Council for the American Worker.

The Advisory Board will be headed by the Secretary of Commerce (Wilbur Ross) and the Advisor to the President overseeing the Office of Economic Initiatives (formerly Dina Powell, and currently unknown since Powell’s return to former employer Goldman Sachs in February, 2018). The Advisory Board will also include 25 citizens appointed by the President for an unpaid, 2 year term, at which time the Advisory Board will be disbanded. The Advisory Board’s primary role is to support the National Council for the American Worker (Council).

The Council will be co-chaired by the Secretaries of Commerce and Labor (Alexander Acosta), the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy (Andrew Bremberg), and Advisor to the President overseeing the Office of Economic Initiatives (Okay, since Dina’s out, I’m going to guess this is really Ivanka Trump‘s new title, but I can’t confirm).

The Council will also include designees from the Secretaries of Education, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, the Office of Management and Budget, the Small Business Administration, the Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Coordination, the National Economic Council, the Council of Economic Advisers, the National Science Foundation, and finally the Office of Science and Technology Policy. (For those of you playing at home, that’s 14 administration officials in total.)

The Council plans to meet quarterly to formulate recommendations on how the Federal Government can work with private employers, educational institutions, labor unions, non-profits, and State and local governments, to “create and promote workforce development strategies that provide evidence-based, affordable education and skills-based training for youth and adults to prepare them for the jobs of today and of the future”. In other words, train workers to fill those unfilled jobs.

Within the next 180 days, the Council is required to develop numerous recommendations and initiatives including:

  • A national campaign to highlight the issues above
  • A plan to recognize companies that invest in worker training (see below)
  • Plans to implement recommendations from the Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion, itself the result of Executive Order 13801 (see below, again)
  • Increase worker access to data on job openings and skills required to fulfill these jobs
  • Develop recommendations on how the public sector should assist the private sector with worker retraining
  • Suggest reforms to private and public expenditures on worker retraining

Needless to say, both the Advisory Board and Council have a Herculean task ahead of them to try and synthesize and develop cogent recommendations for any of the topics above, let alone all of them.

Pledge to America’s Workers

As part of the marketing genius one would expect from the Trump Administration, news of the Executive Order, which would otherwise have been mostly yawn-worthy, was accompanied by an announcement of a more newsworthy Pledge to America’s Workers.

Here’s the commercial:

At least 20 companies and industry organizations signed a pledge to hire or train 3.8 million American workers over the next 5 years.

The top 5 pledges include:

  1. Walmart – 1,000,000 workers
  2. Fedex and American Builders & Contractors – 500,000 each
  3. National Restaurant Association – 369,975
  4. National Retail Federation and North America’s Building Trades Unions – 250,000 each
  5. Associated General Contractors – 172,500

It’s unclear how much these pledges represent net new training initiatives above and beyond pre-existing company goals for training, such as Walmart’s recent education benefits offering with Guild Education. Nonetheless, as with so much else this Administration has done, it creates a (potentially) self-fulfilling perception of progress, that despite its illusory beginnings has the potential to yield real-world benefits (check the stock market lately?).

To whit: shortly after the initial pledges were announced, Apple and Boeing jumped in to sign the Pledge and support 10,000 and 100,000 workers respectively, despite the fact that Boeing’s pledge was part of a pre-existing commitment to invest in worker training announced in 2017 following the tax cuts.

American Workers – Part 1

Given that a large component of the work scheduled for the Council is to further refine proposals from the Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion, a useful question would be: what did this Task Force Accomplish?

The Task Force, composed of effectively the same set of Administration officials as the National Council for the American Worker above, was only formed back in June, 2017. In less than a year, it prepared a final report highlighting 26 individual recommendations. (Don’t worry, I won’t list them all here.)

The top 4 recommendations from the 4 Task Force subcommittees included:

Education and Credentialing:

  • A recommendation for the wholesale government recognition and endorsement of Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship programs. The contrast here is with Registered Apprenticeship programs (private apprenticeship programs that go through a lengthy Federal approvals process), with the report diplomatically noting that “potential industry operators and others have identified several concerns regarding the operational efficiency and/or bureaucratic nature of Registered Apprenticeship.” LOL.

Attracting Business to Apprenticeship:

  • A proposal that the Industry Recognized Apprenticeship program come with simplified Federal funding criteria and streamlined State grant access.

Expanding Access, Equity, and Career Awareness:

  • A request that the Federal Government fund a brand awareness campaign for apprenticeships (hopefully by actual advertising executives vs. government agencies)

Administrative and Regulatory Strategies to Expand Apprenticeship:

  • A recommendation to start a pilot project for Industry Recognized Apprenticeships in an industry without well-established Registered Apprenticeship programs.

Moving Forward

Say what you will about the Trump Administration. In the end, within the Federal Government, there is renewed, high-level interest in revitalizing apprenticeship programs and pushing employers to do more worker training. These issues are as bi-partisan as baseball and apple pie. Everyone should be able to agree that having American workers back in the media spotlight, even if only for a single 24-hour news cycle is a welcome reprieve from business as usual.

Enjoy it while it lasts.




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Micah is the author of Rethink the MBA. He works and lives in Silicon Valley.

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