In public policy, there’s never a panacea.

Challenges are too complex and unintended consequences too common. But sometimes simple, proven tactics deliver the best outcomes. At a moment when employers struggle to find skilled talent, individuals increasingly question the cost (and value) of many higher education paths, and as shifting demographics threaten to leave important roles from the classroom to the construction site left unfilled, one of the oldest forms of training – apprenticeship – is gaining a well-deserved lift.

An executive order from the Biden White House this month to scale and expand Registered Apprenticeships is welcome news for policymakers, employers, and training providers working to meet the unprecedented demand for skilled labor. The executive order calls on all federal agencies to include provisions in its grants and contracts to incentivize employers who utilize or hire from Registered Apprenticeships, paving the way for this “earn-and-learn” system to open up opportunities for workers and allay labor shortages across a wide swath of industries and occupations.

Registered Apprenticeships are not a new concept for training, but they are an effective one. Workers receive training at no cost to them, putting them on a path to well-paid careers without saddling them with debt. Employers, meanwhile, develop a robust pipeline of talent with the exact skills they need, leading to increased productivity, all while reducing turnover and recruitment costs.

Recent efforts to revitalize Registered Apprenticeship programs have been met with success. The trucking industry has launched more than 100 Registered Apprenticeship programs in the three months since the administration enacted the Biden Trucking Action plan, which aims to boost safety and resilience in the sector in part by alleviating labor shortages. A similar initiative in cybersecurity has led to the creation of more than 200 such programs in just four months.

The executive order builds on efforts the Administration has done to prioritize Registered Apprenticeships. Through provisions in the CHIPS and Science Act, semiconductor firms in Phoenix recently announced a Registered Apprenticeship effort to help train the technicians needed to staff their facilities.

The initiative comes at a crucial moment. Recent federal investments in rebuilding America’s infrastructure, connecting millions to high-speed broadband, bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., retrofitting houses, and scaling new electrification needs will require thousands of well-trained workers. Yet the demand for workers is even broader than infrastructure: communities everywhere are scrambling to recruit teachers, nurses, and engineers.

The goals of economic opportunity from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act are not met without a skilled federal workforce. The new action will help address that challenge, stipulating that firms that employ apprentices will be in a stronger position to receive federal funds. The order will not only support the construction sector – where Registered Apprenticeships are already prevalent – but will also apply to burgeoning fields like teaching and civil engineering.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education can provide additional funding to school districts that offer Registered Apprenticeships to train and hire teachers. Similarly, the Department of Health and Human Services can use the order to promote Registered Apprenticeships to hospital systems to train nurses, physician assistants, and lab technicians. This not only provides new, faster ways to fill these critical jobs but also offers millions of Americans without a college degree pathways to quality jobs that offer career advancement, family sustaining wages, and worker benefits.

The President is not just calling on private employers to step up and start new Registered Apprenticeships, he’s challenging his own government to do the same. The Executive Order calling on federal agencies to work with the Office of Personnel Management to start and scale federal Registered Apprenticeship pathways can be a game changer for federal employment. The federal government is the nation’s largest employer and many of its jobs are far outside the beltway. Historically, federal employment played a role in helping grow the Black middle class.

This order comes at a moment when the federal government, like many employers, is struggling with a growing number of retirees and increased staff turnover. A third of all federal employees are nearing retirement, while just 7% are younger than 30. At the same time, navigating the federal hiring process can be cumbersome and confusing. By expanding access to Registered Apprenticeships, the federal government can offer new and current employees a chance to gain the skills needed for the job and career advancement. The practice has the potential to break down barriers to high-quality jobs among underrepresented communities.

The federal government is putting up the support and incentives to provide a pathway for skilled workers. It’s now up to employers to step up and utilize the benefits to meet their demands or continue on the cycle relying on a misaligned workforce system.

Harin Contractor is the Director of Workforce Innovation at The Burning Glass Institute and former Director of Labor Policy at the White House National Economic Council.

Patrick Combs is vice president of the Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning at Jobs for the Future. Previously, Combs served as the interim CEO and chief program officer for the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, where he led the second-largest local workforce area in the country.

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