Democratic Congressional candidate Christie Vilsack rolled out her first specific proposal to create new jobs last week. The plan to expand apprenticeship programs was light on specifics but heavy on conservative catch phrases.
Vilsack’s full statement on apprenticeship as an "Avenue to New Iowa Jobs" is on her campaign website. Excerpt:
Not only can apprenticeships provide skills and training that will make our young people more employable. They can also strengthen the ties between generations that are a hallmark of rural life.
Currently, there are 480,000 apprentices in the U.S. These are individuals who have taken extended work-related training programs to become certified in a particular trade, such as carpentry, pipefitting, maintenance, machining, or welding.
Apprenticeships provide a lifetime of value. One study found that an individual who goes through an apprenticeship earns $269,000 more during their lifetime than someone who simply gets an associate degree.
Apprenticeships don’t have to be limited to skilled trades like carpentry and machine repair. They can help prepare workers in other fields like dental assistants, daycare providers and home healthcare workers.
Despite the proven success of apprenticeships in preparing Americans for good jobs, the federal government has largely ignored them. Based on the latest figures available, Washington invests only $29 million in apprenticeship programs compared to a total of $3.9 BILLION on all other workforce development programs.
We have 47 different federal jobs programs across dozens of agencies. But we don’t really measure how well each is doing. It just makes Iowa sense to invest more in one that’s proven to work.
That’s why I’m proposing today a new partnership between the federal government and community colleges to double the number of apprentices across our country.
This won’t cost any additional tax money. We can simply re-direct some of the nearly $4 billion in existing federal training funds to support an expanded apprentice program. Let’s put the money where it works.
And to make sure this doesn’t become just another Big Government program, my plan would forge a partnership between the feds and our local community colleges.
By putting community colleges in charge, and encouraging them to work closely with local businesses and labor unions, we can make sure the program turns out workers that our economy needs.
But we need to go further — not with new taxes or regulations, but with a targeted tax CUT.
To ensure that these apprenticeships result in real jobs, I propose a tax credit for businesses that sponsor apprenticeship programs and hire their graduates. One way to do this would be to provide employers an income tax credit for two years for each apprentice they hire. That’s a powerful incentive to put people to work.
Let’s be clear — it’s businesses, not government, who put people to work. An expanded apprenticeship program will bring private-sector companies a host of advantages:
Highly skilled workers with hands-on experience;
The ability to hire workers at a lower wage while they’re being trained;
And, under my proposal, an added tax break, as well.
An expanded national apprenticeship program would be particularly helpful to Iowa’s ag-based economy:
Elevators need well-trained maintenance workers. Implement dealers need well-trained repair technicians. Utility companies need well-trained employees to repair windmills located on farms. Manufacturers need well-trained machinists and welders to build windmills or farm machinery.
We could even extend apprenticeships to young people interested in becoming farmers, pairing them with experienced producers concerned about the future of their farms.
To make these initiatives successful, we have to eliminate the current rules in the Pell Grant program that punish people for working while continuing their education. We need to demonstrate that we VALUE work, not discourage it. Those taking part in apprenticeship programs through their local community colleges should be eligible for full Pell Grants.
What could be a better investment of our education dollars than helping Iowans learn a skill that can support themselves and their families?
There’s also an important HUMAN component to apprenticeships, as well. Many of our young people today come from single-parent families. They often lack a strong adult presence in their lives.
I’ll deal with the substance of this proposal in a moment. First, consider the many ways in which Vilsack promotes conservative dogma about government and the economy:
1. Her statement suggests that the federal government spends freely on jobs programs with no regard for whether they work. Vilsack rejects this approach because it doesn’t make “Iowa sense.” In other words, she concedes that the federal government is just wasting money on a lot of what it currently does.
2. Vilsack emphasizes that she’s not for spending any additional “tax money” on on job creation. Instead, she would put that funding to use “where it works.” Again, she reinforces the idea that current federal jobs programs don’t work and are a waste of taxpayer dollars.
3. “And to make sure this doesn’t become just another Big Government program, my plan would forge a partnership between the feds and our local community colleges.” Vilsack wants you to know that Big Government is bad, and she doesn’t want “the feds” in charge of job creation programs. Community colleges are public institutions, but are ok, I guess because they haven’t been vilified by conservatives.
4. “But we need to go further — not with new taxes or regulations, but with a targeted tax CUT.” This implies that new taxes or regulations on business should play no role in our policy discussion on job creation. Have no fear, business owners, Vilsack only wants to lighten your load.
5. “Let’s be clear — it’s businesses, not government, who put people to work.” That straight-up conservative talking point doesn’t even make sense in this context. If Vilsack really believes this, then she should propose shutting down all federal jobs programs. By saying the U.S. should expand apprenticeship incentives, she is admitting that a lot of private businesses would not hire apprentices without direct federal assistance and/or a new federal tax credit. That’s government putting people to work.
6. “We need to demonstrate that we VALUE work, not discourage it.” Again, Vilsack distances herself from big-government liberals by suggesting that government handouts (in this case Pell Grants) discourage work.
7. Finally, Vilsack portrays her apprenticeship plan as a family values program, or at least one antidote to the proliferation of single-parent families. She suggests that children who grew up in single-parent households could particularly benefit from being apprentices, because they “often lack a strong adult presence in their lives.”
Vilsack excels at message discipline. As on the day she formally announced her Congressional bid, she repeated key phrases from her campaign document at her public event in Sioux City on August 25.
Obviously the idea is to convince fourth district voters that Vilsack supports traditional, conservative Iowa values. Trouble is, Representative Steve King and his surrogates will give her no credit for validating their point of view. No Republican will say, “Hey, that apprenticeship deal is worth exploring, especially since it wouldn’t cost anything extra and includes a tax cut for business.” On the contrary, this GOP response was entirely predictable.
“Iowa’s middle-class families can’t afford Christie Vilsack’s massive spending plan that will destroy jobs and make our economy worse,” said Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “With liberal polices like these, Vilsack faces a daunting task of convincing Iowa families that she represents their values.”
As for the content of Vilsack’s plan, apprenticeships sound like a nice way to start a career, but I need a lot more to convince me that the Vilsack plan is the best way to create jobs in the fourth Congressional district. How much money would she redirect toward apprenticeship programs? Is there any evidence that apprenticeship programs work better than federal programs that would lose all or part of their funding under her plan? Which programs would she cut, and how many people do they help?
I wonder about the $2,500 income tax credit that Vilsack would offer businesses for each apprentice hired for two years. Is there evidence that a tax credit of that size can stimulate a significant number of new hirings? Businesses tend to hire when they expect growing demand for their goods and services. I also wonder whether this tax credit would allow some business owners to game the system. Let’s say I need to hire an additional employee at my grain elevator. Under Vilsack’s plan, perhaps I could call that person an “apprentice,” pay a lower-than-market wage and get a tax credit too. After two years, maybe I could fire that person and hire a new apprentice to get a new tax credit.
I contacted Vilsack’s campaign last week seeking more details about her plan and information supporting its premise. At this writing, I have not received anything to back up the claim that apprenticeship programs deserve more funding because they are “proven to work.” I will update this post if I receive further information from Vilsack’s staff.
Expanding apprenticeships is a valid policy goal. Maybe Vilsack is right that the program deserves more attention. Maybe a focus on apprenticeships would particularly benefit rural areas. Maybe Pell Grant rules should be improved. But for now, this plan looks more like a vehicle to innoculate Vilsack from the charge that she is too liberal for the fourth district.
In a wave election, Democrats can win Republican-leaning districts and vice-versa. I can’t think of any GOP Congressional candidate from 2010 who bent over backwards to use Democratic messaging the way Vilsack did in her apprenticeship plan. For the most part, Republican candidates succeeded or failed by promoting their own party’s agenda and talking points. I am not optimistic that an anti-government message will work for Vilsack in IA-04.
UPDATE: The Vilsack campaign referred me to this October 2010 report (pdf) by Robert I. Lerman for the Urban Institute on “Expanding Apprenticeship: A Way to Enhance Skills and Careers.”