WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, responding to companies’ struggles with a shortage of skilled workers that has left more than 6 million jobs unfilled nationwide, signed an executive order Thursday geared at better aligning government training programs with the demands of industry.
The order creates a Council for the American Worker, led by the secretaries of commerce and labor, that will focus on consolidating existing federal programs and funding new job training initiatives, with a special concentration on expanding apprenticeship programs and retraining older workers without college degrees.
As part of the effort, companies and trade unions have committed to funding nearly 4 million slots for apprenticeships, retraining and continuing education programs over the next five years.
Job training has emerged as one of the few coordinated policy initiatives generated in the West Wing with broad appeal across income and party lines. In part, that is because many labor and corporate leaders are struggling to expand their workforce, and several top White House officials, including Kevin Hassett, the chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, have made the issue a top priority.
In the run-up to Thursday’s announcement, R. Alexander Acosta, the labor secretary, announced $150 million in funding pegged to a June 2017 executive order that was intended to strengthen apprenticeship programs targeting new industries, veterans and their spouses, women, people of color and ex-offenders.
“It isn’t as massive as I’d like to see, but there is a lot of activity going on now at the federal and state levels on apprenticeships and worker training,” said Bob Lerman, a fellow at the nonpartisan Urban Institute who studies apprenticeship programs. “It’s all helpful, even if I’d like to see something that is a little better coordinated.”
Trump will also convene an advisory panel of industry, union and corporate leaders to ensure federal programs are more closely aligned to the labor demands of industry. In June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated there were 6.7 million job openings, with only 6.4 million workers available to fill them.
“Today, 23 companies and associations are pledging to expand apprenticeships. That’s an interesting word for me to be saying, right? ‘The Apprentice,’” Trump said at a White House signing ceremony.
“I never actually put that together until just now,” he said, calling to his daughter Ivanka, who is working on the jobs initiative. “Isn’t that strange? Ivanka, I never associated, but here we are.”
The initiative is meant to underscore Trump’s commitment to the mainly working-class “forgotten Americans” whom Republicans are hoping to attract in the 2018 midterm elections, aides said.
“Every day we are getting our forgotten Americans off the sidelines,” the president said.
True to Trump’s “Apprentice” reference, Thursday’s ceremony had the pomp of a reality-show reveal episode. The trade association officials, corporate executives, union leaders and politicians sat at a table and signed, one by one, a “Pledge to America’s Workers,” promising to “create enhanced career opportunities,” beneath a gilded presidential seal.
It is not clear exactly how many workers will be assisted by the pledges made Thursday. Companies made their commitments in terms of slots — placements in various programs — with Walmart vowing to create 1 million such opportunities, and a buildings trade union promising another half-million.
Most of the companies and organizations in attendance had already planned to greatly increase their job training and apprenticeship programs, as part of an effort to counter what many business executives see as a labor crisis that could limit their growth.
White House staff members had initially asked participants to base their numerical pledges on the number of apprenticeship slots their organization planned to set aside. That number totaled about 500,000, according to two trade association representatives.
But earlier this week, aides to Trump, apparently disappointed with that number, expanded the definition of “career opportunities” to include many other initiatives, including retraining of workers inside companies for different jobs, continuing education programs and other measures intended to burnish worker skills.
Trade groups like the Aerospace Industry Association included new initiatives to create skills certification programs that would be portable from company to company.
Still, industry executives applauded Trump’s actions, and described the order as a catalyst that could spur others to take action. “We are encouraged by the administration’s commitment to ensuring American workers develop the appropriate skills and have access to the training needed for today’s in-demand jobs and the jobs of the future,” said Frederick W. Smith, chairman and chief executive of FedEx, which committed to 512,000 workforce development slots, including tuition assistance programs.
While workforce development advocates praised the executive order, some expressed puzzlement at the seeming disconnect with Trump’s budget proposals, which included a 40 percent cut to the Labor Department’s funding for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the biggest federal worker retraining program.
“It’s been a little bit of a Jekyll and Hyde thing,” said Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director for the nonpartisan National Skills Coalition. “The real test is whether the administration comes back next year with the same proposal to slash spending.”