Q & A with John V. Ladd: November 2023

Q&A with John Ladd for National Apprenticeship Week.

John V. Ladd, Administrator,
Office of Apprenticeship,
Employment and Training Administration,
U.S. Department of Labor

IN THIS MONTH of National Apprenticeship Week, we’re honored to feature as our interviewee John Ladd, the person responsible for oversight and activities related to the National Apprenticeship Act, as well as for the management of OA staff in the National Office, six Regional Offices, and numerous field offices across the country. John graciously agreed to speak with ACDS Apprenticeship Director Lonnie Emard, both for a video (which you may have seen during NAW activities) and for our newsletter. The following Q & A is a slightly edited version of their video conversation.

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John, you went to Boston University and then Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, got your degree in public policy. And, in those days, give us an idea of what you might’ve been thinking your future career might look like.

Yeah, very different. I probably thought I would never get out of Boston, given that I’d spent most of my education there. But before going to the Kennedy School, I had worked for the City of Boston on workforce development issues. So, that’s where I really fell in love with the topic, and these issues, and knowing the impact that these programs could have on people’s lives. That’s when I decided I wanted to continue that work, so I enrolled at the Kennedy School. There I also fell in love with public policy.

It was an exciting time. I graduated in 1993, at the start of the first Democratic administration in a while. As you would expect, a lot of the folks at the Kennedy School came to D.C., including one of my professors, Robert Reich, who was the Secretary of Labor here in ’93. So, I certainly didn’t know what my career was going to look like at the time, but I knew I wanted to work on these issues and was really excited to be able to work on them under Bob Reich at a national level.

You’ve alluded to the foundation of this, but what specifically was it about apprenticeships that attracted you to this kind of career?

People may be surprised, but I had never worked specifically on apprenticeship issues until my first day as Administrator for the Office of Apprenticeship. That was in 2008. But I had been working for the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) since 1993, and there I had worked on a whole range of workforce development issues. As I look back, I really think being a bit of an outsider to apprenticeship actually worked in my favor. It allowed me to play the uninformed and ask all the dumb questions about why do we do things this way? And it allowed me to look at things maybe a little bit differently.

I think that was really helpful as I started my career here in the Office of Apprenticeship. On a more personal level, my dad was and is still a plumber. He came to this country as an immigrant from Ireland, and he got his start as an apprentice. He ended up starting his own business, so our whole family trajectory really owes a tremendous amount to apprenticeship. It’s ironic, and in some ways very fitting, that as the son of an apprentice I’ve been able to have an impact on apprenticeship issues across the country.

Having started in this position back in 2008, you’ve seen a lot of changes in your long tenure. What has changed about the perception of apprenticeships in general?

Yeah, it’s a great question. When I started here in the office, there was generally a sense of apprenticeship as somewhat of a niche program, one that was primarily to serve the construction industry. It really wasn’t seen as even a mainstream workforce development program. There had been a lot of other people working in this space and trying to lift up apprenticeships—in some cases, for decades. But things started to change pretty shortly after I came on board. I think people now really understand that apprenticeship is one of the most effective mechanisms for acquiring skills, and that that model can work at every industry and across a wide range of occupations.

But this certainly didn’t happen overnight, and we still have a lot of work to do to combat some of the negative perceptions about apprenticeship. The default view in this country is that college at 18 is the primary definition of success. So we need to continue efforts to really modernize, expand, and diversify apprenticeships.

Let’s talk about some of that. Please describe your view of the value of an “intermediary,” such as ACDS. Intermediaries can be national or within a state or a region. What do you think of their value, in terms of expanding and scaling apprenticeship?

Intermediaries are critical. We’ve been investing in intermediaries since 2016, an effort built on the idea that many employers—even if they’re willing—simply don’t understand how to set up an apprenticeship program, how to run an apprenticeship program, or they don’t have the internal capacity to support these programs. And that’s a critical role that intermediaries can play. They’re often that trusted bridge between DOL and an employer. And they’re the ones that often have the industry subject matter expertise. DOL is not a subject matter expert in every industry. You all know your industry better than we do. And the employers that you work with have a relationship with you and trust you, and often are more comfortable going there, at least to start, than starting that relationship with DOL.

Intermediaries can also reduce the friction in the system by guiding employers through the process, and they can help develop the standards on behalf of an industry. We really see intermediaries as the key to scaling apprenticeship across the country. We don’t have the economies of scale to do this one employer at a time, and intermediaries can also play an important role as being the sponsor of multi-employer apprenticeship programs. So, those small and medium-sized
enterprises that maybe just don’t have the capacity or maybe don’t feel like they’ve got enough demand to run a program by themselves can team up with other employers and share that expense and the capacity needed to administer the program, and they can rely on that intermediary to take some of that off of their shoulders.

You mentioned early on about investment, and I know that as far back as 2016, significant funding had been made available from the DOL, probably along with other agencies. What are your thoughts about how this complementary funding can help state agencies, nonprofits like us, community colleges, and so forth, to do the right thing? This effort is a combination of workforce, and economic development, and education. So, how does that come together in your mind?

That’s exactly right, so we try to think about how we increase the capacity of the entire apprenticeship ecosystem. We’ve been fortunate that this has been a growing and evolving ecosystem, particularly since 2016. But we know it’s important that we have funding also at the state level, so we’ve been funding states to promote innovation and increase their capacity. We’ve been funding intermediaries. We’ve been funding community organizations and others. So, there’s a lot of direct funding that we do provide. But apprenticeship still remains primarily a voluntary system and one that is mostly funded through the employer investment in these programs. We recognize that, so we also try to think about how we can use our resources to, as I mentioned earlier, reduce the friction, make the process simpler, make it more understandable to people so there’s not a lot of lost time and resources spent trying to figure out, “How do I get started? What partners do I need to connect with? What resources are available in my community to leverage?”

Can we make more electronic tools and resources available? Can we make the registration process more streamlined and put that online? Can we crowdsource a lot of the things that we’re trying to do? How do we connect people to other partners? It’s really important that we make that process as transparent and as simple as possible while also ensuring that apprenticeship programs remain high quality. So, that’s been a key focus for us over the past few years.

Well, that sure makes sense. Do you see that there are things that some states—and you don’t have to name anybody—have done better than others?

Yes, absolutely. I think the great news is we see so much more state engagement now than we did, say, 10 years ago. There’s just been tremendous success across a number of states. And, every state is unique, every state has their unique set of factors and partners, and we certainly at the federal government don’t want to dictate how that should play out. But we want to be a partner and provide resources to help support that.

Some key elements that we see in some more successful states is often a governor or other high-level state leadership that’s engaged in these efforts. We’ve seen state governor delegations take trips to Switzerland, or Germany, or go visit other states to see what they’re doing. So to know that your governor’s engaged and your governor has high expectations for the apprenticeship systems in these states, that is a key factor.

But industry engagement is just as critical, including labor engagement. It really has to come from industry. There has to be that demand from industry, the articulated need from business and labor about the need to develop a world-class workforce in the state and how apprenticeship can be part of that. So having industry lead, I think, is incredibly important. And certainly in states like South Carolina and Arkansas and others, that’s been the case. Apprenticeship can’t be a government solution. Government has to be a partner, but industry has to be driving and leading this.

And then, lastly, it’s really important that there’s a willingness to think differently about how to operate. This isn’t your grandfather’s apprenticeship, and it’s not your grandfather’s apprenticeship system. We all want to think about how we can be more effective, how we can be more efficient, how we can be more responsive, how we can be more innovative, how we can ensure that things like equity and quality are embedded as part of systems as they evolve. The apprenticeship system has been characterized by high quality over the years. We don’t want to lose that as we grow and expand. But that doesn’t mean that apprenticeship has to look the same everywhere, in every industry. So how do we think differently about how to operate, and how do we do some of that outreach and promotion to new industries—that’s really a critical part of this. States’ being willing to think about putting resources towards that promotion and outreach, thinking about how to align the education and workforce systems with apprenticeship—that’s also critically important. So having all partners at the table and a willingness to be innovative and take some risk—those are some common factors that we see in states that have really been successful.

I totally agree, John. Now, you alluded earlier to three strategies for growing apprenticeships—modernization, diversity, and expansion. What is success going to look like on those three strategies?

There are a couple of things I’d say on each of these. On the modernization front, a lot of what we’re looking at involves those process improvements that I talked about before—how do we make the process simpler, more transparent, more understandable for people? But we’re also really excited that we’re currently working on regulatory updates to Registered Apprenticeship. The last time we updated our regulations was in 2008. Unfortunately, I can’t talk in detail about that, but we’ve gotten a lot of input about what modernization looks like. I think people will be excited to see some of the regulatory proposals that we’ll be rolling out later this year.

For diversification, we want Registered Apprenticeship programs to reflect the communities in which they operate. While that’s a very simple statement, it’s also an important and to some extent an ambitious one. With all these new investments coming down the road that are creating a lot of good new jobs, we want to make sure everybody has access to those jobs. We want to see greater diversification of apprenticeship, particularly for women and people of color, people with disabilities, and we know we’re moving in the right direction. The numbers are improving, but they’re not improving as fast as we would like them to. But we’re also seeing that where we funded apprenticeship activities, in our grants and contract work, the level of equity and the level of diversification in those programs is higher than in the system as a whole. So we’re encouraged to know that where we’re putting our thumb on the scale and providing additional resources, greater diversification can be reached.

And then lastly, expansion. We want to have penetration in every industry across a wide range of occupations, and we’ve seen some places where we’ve had a lot of success with some targeted efforts. We launched a trucking challenge last year, and a cyber sprint after that. We’ve had success in expanding teacher apprenticeships. We’re now working with the White House on the recently announced manufacturing sprint. These focused efforts have produced real results with many new programs, occupations, and apprentices being registered in a very short period of time, so we know it can be done. We want to see apprenticeship expanded across every industry, and we believe it can work in almost every occupation in those industries. So, big, big goals, exciting work ahead. We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re impatient to see more progress.

You mentioned this idea of diversification as being a strategy. We’ve got enough sample size now that we’ve clearly seen a movement toward opening up inclusion and opportunities—whether that’s rural or females and minorities—by not having to require that four-year degree, especially in computer science and IT, fields that haven’t been laden with those diverse populations. We’ve seen a rapid increase in those metrics. And I think that can be true in a lot of other sectors as well.

Yeah, absolutely. 

You’ve mentioned strategies on investment for apprenticeships, and I enjoyed it when I first heard you talk about “the uncles”—Uncle Bill, Uncle CHIP, and Uncle IRA, which refer to the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. Please give us a little feedback on that.

Sure, and I wish I could take credit for that one, but it was one of my colleagues who referred to them as the uncles. But we’re all stealing that tagline. The bottom line is that these collectively represent a historic opportunity to create good jobs and to ensure that these jobs are accessible by all Americans. That’s not going to happen at the federal level. It/s going to happen at the state and local level. So we really want to encourage everyone to be as intentional as you can be about ensuring quality and equity as you think about your workforce development efforts to support these economic development investments that are coming down the pike.

I will put in one specific plug for IRA. It’s important for people to understand that this is the first time there’s a direct federal tax incentive for apprenticeship. So it’s really a test case of whether using these federal incentives can drive adoption of apprenticeship. We believe it’s critical, and I hope you all do as well. We really want to show that we can make this work, that this can be a powerful incentive for industry to adopt apprenticeship as a workforce development model.

I appreciate how you positioned that, John, because everybody does need to first understand it—but then we’ve got to seize the opportunity in a very collaborative way.

I want to close with kind of a big picture question. The New York Times recently published an article about how there are increasingly two Americas—one college educated, and then one moving forward without a college degree. The article talked about how people without degrees seem to be losing ground in many ways, including in life expectancy, and it said that one way to counteract this trend would be to do away with the degree requirements for many jobs, which a handful of states are already doing. Doesn’t this speak directly to the strength and potential of Registered Apprenticeships?

I couldn’t agree more. As you mentioned earlier, there’s a whole range of occupations that traditionally wanted to make a college degree the entry requirement into their profession, and I think what people are seeing today is that you’re denying access to a lot of talent that’s out there. So, by thinking more broadly about how we prepare people for different jobs and different occupations, there’s an opportunity to really bridge this gap between those with a degree and those without. And it doesn’t have to be a false choice that an apprenticeship is an either/or to a college education. As you know, apprenticeship is itself post-secondary education, and many apprentices earn college credit. So, it’s really more shifting the model from fulltime college at 18 for everyone being the model of success, to enabling more pathways to post-secondary education and training.

The average age of someone in apprenticeship is 28. If they were aware of the apprenticeship path earlier, they’d be further along in their career, further along in their earning power, have saved more, probably already have money saved for college, or college credit, or even have their college degree paid for by their employer or by the union that they’re a member of. So, again, apprenticeship is not a lesser choice between college for those who want to go to college. In many ways, it’s often the best of all worlds. So, we really do see a lot of potential for apprenticeship opening up these new pathways.

On that last point, we’ve had a lot of success in this state creating almost a succession planning model when you think about apprenticeship, not just for entry level, but for incumbent workers moving through their career paths and advancing themselves—or I should say, companies promoting them using apprenticeship. It really does create a strategy that’s bigger than just a hiring strategy.

Absolutely. And, I’m sure you’ve heard this too—as part of that succession planning, we’re hearing that the folks who are serving as mentors and apprentice supervisors are finding themselves re-energized as well. Because they’re getting the opportunity to share their knowledge and what they’ve learned with the next generation. That’s a very powerful thing.