OPINION: Apprenticeship bill is critical for Alaska

Sen. Lisa Murkowski recently introduced legislation, S. 2122, to reauthorize the National Apprenticeship Act, in partnership with a bipartisan team of other senators. This bill would modernize and expand apprenticeship, with potentially enormous benefits for a wide range of Alaska industries ranging from construction to health care to mining.

Congress first passed apprenticeship legislation in 1937, and much has changed in the following decades. While apprenticeship continues to be used for construction trades as it has been for generations, today apprenticeship is a central workforce training strategy for many other industries. For example, Alaska’s health care providers — including primary care clinics and hospitals — are rapidly expanding use of apprenticeship for occupations ranging from medical assistants to community health workers. Red Dog mine relies on apprenticeship to train mill operators and drillers, helping meet local hire goals for residents in the NANA region. Information technology, manufacturing and aviation apprenticeships are widely used throughout other states, and have the potential to support economic diversification in Alaska. S. 2122 supports apprenticeship for all these industries.

The legislation also makes critical reforms to link apprenticeship with college. For too long, America has separated skilled technical training from college degree pathways. This separation of academic and technical training exacerbates workforce shortages and results in low rates of college completion. Sen. Murkowski’s bill wisely links apprenticeship with college so more Alaskans can train through apprenticeship and progress toward a college degree simultaneously. So many of our jobs, from construction to mining to health care, rely on skilled technical training equivalent to many college courses in math or engineering. Our skilled trades workers should receive credit for the rigorous apprenticeship training they are already doing.

Apprenticeship modernization legislation also addresses a key gap in our workforce system: Massive labor shortages in child care and other areas of the care sector. Some child care providers in Alaska today are pursuing the establishment of apprenticeship training, and S. 2122 has entire bill sections identifying strategies to expand apprenticeship in the care sector. Such reforms will allow Alaskans from all sectors to get back to work, expand our labor force participation rate, and strengthen families’ economic security. Considering that child care is among the Alaska Chamber of Commerce’s top priorities, it is clear that we should use apprenticeships as well as other tools to close workforce gaps.

Apprenticeship in Alaska has a long bipartisan tradition. S. 2122 will strengthen apprenticeship in our state and throughout the United States, and I look forward to seeing it signed by President Joe Biden.

Suzanne McCarthy is the director of the Alaska Laborers Training School.

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