A Sen. Murray promotion might help push for apprenticeships

Danielle Williams, a single mother of three from Skyway, Washington, received a 25-cents-an-hour raise after getting 145 hours of advanced apprenticeship training as a home care aide. She now earns $12 an hour. (SEIU Healthcare NW Training Partnership/McClatchy)
Danielle Williams, a single mother of three from Skyway, Washington, received a 25-cents-an-hour raise after getting 145 hours of advanced apprenticeship training as a home care aide. She now earns $12 an hour. (SEIU Healthcare NW Training Partnership/McClatchy) Handout

As lawmakers left Capitol Hill last week, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state introduced a bill that’s guaranteed to go nowhere fast in the current session of Congress.

It would more than double federal spending on apprenticeships while nudging colleges to offer credits to students for their on-the-job training. With no Senate co-sponsors and no hearings planned, Murray said it was unlikely that she’d get the bill passed when Congress returns for a short lame-duck session after the Nov. 4 elections.

“I highly doubt that, but it will set the groundwork so that next year this can be a real focus,” Murray said in an interview Monday.

Waiting may not be so bad: If Democrats maintain control of the Senate in 2015 – and that’s a big IF at the moment – Murray is a good bet to head the influential Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which would have jurisdiction over her bill.

It would also be a plum promotion for the former preschool teacher, making her the lead senator on everything related to education, labor and health care, issues that have defined her 22-year Senate career.

Murray, 63, would replace another liberal, Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who’s retiring after 40 years in Congress. Harkin has led the panel since 2009, following the death of Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.

While Murray was eager to talk up her apprenticeship bill, she said it was too early to discuss any possible committee assignments for next year. It would be the third full committee chairmanship for Murray, who took over as the head of the Senate Budget Committee last year. She led the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs during 2011 and 2012.

“I’ll look at all my options in November,” Murray said. “Obviously, chairing that committee would be a great opportunity, but we’ll wait and see what opportunities are out there. . . . We’ll see where we go.”

Whether she gets the new job or not, Murray wants to make apprenticeships a top issue next year. She defended her decision to introduce her bill so late in the session.

“I work every day, and you don’t get a bill passed just because you introduce it in January,” Murray said.

Murray’s bill, called the PACE Act, for the Promoting Apprenticeships for Credentials and Employment Act, would make the federal Office of Apprenticeship a permanent fixture in the Department of Labor. Currently, each presidential administration gets to decide its fate.

“Making the office permanent will, first of all, just send a message,” Murray said. “But then it really puts in place an organization that will focus on this, and it will not be just subject to the whims of whoever in the future.”

While the office now gets $30 million a year, Murray’s bill would increase overall spending on apprenticeships to $75 million a year. Much of the new money would go to help employers create apprenticeship programs and to set up systems for community colleges and four-year universities to provide credit for job training, making apprenticeships a formal part of the U.S. educational system.

“It allows people to earn while they learn,” Murray said. “There’s bipartisan business and labor support for this because it is a proven way of helping people learn a skill, whether it’s in health care or whether it’s for our Boeing machinists.”

In Washington state, where businesses employ 10,000 to 12,000 apprentices each year, both of the state’s senators are focused on the issue.

Last week, the state’s junior senator, Democrat Maria Cantwell, teamed up with Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins on a bill that would give tax breaks to companies that use apprenticeship programs to train workers in high-demand fields such as technology and health care. Companies would get $5,000 annual tax breaks for up to three years for each apprentice they hire. The bill would also allow veterans in apprenticeships to get credit for training they received in the military.

Cantwell’s office couldn’t provide a cost estimate for the bill, saying it’s still being reviewed by the Joint Committee on Taxation. But Cantwell said apprenticeships “have proven to be a win-win,” citing a Department of Labor study that showed those who complete apprenticeship programs earn an average of $240,000 more in lifetime wages than those with similar backgrounds who have no comparable training.

Murray said the two bills “complement each other very well,” adding: “We share the same goal here, obviously.”

The Obama administration has pushed the issue hard this year, too.

In April, President Barack Obama launched a $100 million competition for “American apprenticeship grants.” Just last week, Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, went to Switzerland to tout the administration’s work at the International Congress on Vocational and Professional Education and Training. She said the United States now had 375,000 registered apprentices but needed to add 2.5 million more next year to compete with Britain and 7 million more to compete with Germany.

The push for more apprenticeships is welcome news for Danielle Williams, a single mother of three from Skyway, Wash., who received a 25-cents-an-hour raise after getting 145 hours of advanced apprenticeship training as a home care aide.

After first working in day care, she’s earning $12 an hour as a home care aide, she said, and has learned skills to help care for her patients, including a diabetic man who suffered two strokes.

“The raise did come and it helped out a lot, but it’s not about the money,” said Williams, who’s 45. “It’s about what I like to do. I have a heart for it and I love taking care of people. I just like to do it.”

Williams’ boss, Nora Gibson, the executive director at Full Life Care in Seattle, said Williams was one of only two employees at her company to complete the apprenticeship program. But she said more were in the pipeline, thanks to a program operated by the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Northwest Training Partnership.

With more elderly people wanting to receive health care in their homes, the demand for home care aides will only grow, Gibson said. And she said apprenticeship programs could be a particularly good way to aid the low-wage home health care workforce.

“It’s helping to professionalize it and legitimize the workforce,” Gibson said. “We’re just in the very beginning of this.”