Trying on a future career: Lawmakers look to refine apprenticeship program

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(IBJ illustration/Sarah Ellis)

Lawmakers who returned to the Statehouse this week are already looking to make changes in a law they passed a year ago meant to boost apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities.

House Enrolled Act 1002, a sweeping education package, established the Career Scholarship Account fund, which provides money that students in 10th, 11th and 12th grades can use toward apprenticeships, applied learning, work-based learning and other post-secondary credentials.

The law allows students to use the money to enroll in “earn-and-learn” opportunities and pay for transportation, uniforms and other on-the-job costs.

The program isn’t set to fully roll out until the 2025-2026 school year, but the law’s author, Rep. Chuck Goodrich, R-Noblesville, has filed a bill to make some changes and additions to the program. House Bill 1001 would clarify that the career funds can be used for costs related to obtaining a driver’s license and allows recipients to use money obtained from the state’s 21st Century Scholars Program (currently set up to provide college scholarships) for training by an approved intermediary, employer or labor organization.

It would also require state educational institutions to provide certain information regarding degrees, degree completion, faculty members and other costs to the Commission for Higher Education.

But that legislation alone won’t be enough to address all the questions from Democratic lawmakers, business leaders and public education advocates about how the program will be regulated, whether employers will be properly incentivized to participate, and how public schools and state agencies will respond to the additional mandates placed on them.

Ed DeLaney

The original legislation “was not ready for prime time,” said Rep. Ed DeLaney, a Democrat from Indianapolis who sits on the House Education Committee. “We need to deal with the fact that it’s going to be one more huge burden on our public schools by asking them to create this whole new vast array of career options when they already have a vast array of career options.”

Many of the questions about the law focus on the definition of and responsibilities given to the so-called “intermediary” organizations—broadly defined as business and trade associations, not-for-profits, workforce development boards and labor organizations—that will get access to state funding to “connect individuals with companies looking for new workers.”

Jason Bearce, vice president of education and workforce development for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said lawmakers need to clarify the role of intermediary organizations that “are often going to be the deciding factor in helping students and employers navigate all of the worthy opportunities” the program could offer.

The law requires groups that want to become an intermediary to seek approval from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. Each intermediary can receive a one-time grant of up to $250,000.

Under the law, the Commission for Higher Education and Indiana Department of Education will be responsible for approving available courses and tracks that are eligible for funding. The law allows for up to $5,000 in spending per student starting in the 2025-2026 school year. To qualify for the program, students will need to create a graduation plan.

Some stakeholders, including the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, have referred to the program as “a privatization effort.” And some public education advocates have questioned why more money wasn’t allocated to existing career and technical education programs at high schools and education service centers.

But Senate President Pro Tem Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, said one of the challenges of existing career education programs is that students end up using outdated equipment. “They may or may not be using the skills that are being used in the industry at that very moment,” Bray said.

Modern apprenticeship programs, he said, offer on-the-job training that prepares students for careers right after graduating high school.

“When you are going to work for a company, they’re not going to train you on something that isn’t something that they need right now, and so I think it’s more current, and the skills are more applicable,” he said.

Another concern comes from groups representing rural interests, including the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, who say rural areas with fewer employers won’t benefit from the career fund as much as urban and suburban areas.

Reimagining high school

The 2023 law also asks the State Board of Education to reexamine high school diploma requirements to provide more flexibility in a student’s schedule to pursue work opportunities outside of school.

Katie Jenner

“Part of rethinking high school is really taking a look at our Indiana diplomas,” said Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner. “As a nation, our diplomas have been very similar for over 100 years. Education has stayed about the same. We require the same kind of courses year after year, and yet the world around us is moving at an unbelievable pace.”

The law requires high schools to hold at least one career fair per year to connect employers with students, a mandate that was criticized as overly cumbersome by some education associations. It also included the addition of a “career awareness” class to high school students’ course requirements beginning this fall, a move the Indy Chamber called “a straightforward and highly impactful step to assist students in selecting their career pathways.”

Bray and House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, have been vocal supporters of the legislation.

“I don’t think there’s anything more important we can do right now,” Huston said. “Whether you talk to a merit-based shop or a trade union, they desperately want and need young people, and this gives them an opportunity.”

HEA 1002 was the Republican supermajority’s response to declining reading levels, increased truancy in schools and a historically low labor participation rate.

It passed in the waning hours of the 2023 legislative session, when the House and Senate came to an agreement on a plan crafted by House Republicans to reimagine the Hoosier high school experience by bolstering access to apprenticeship programs, internships and other work-based learning opportunities.

“We know there are employers across the state who are struggling to find qualified candidates for job openings,” Goodrich said last year following the law’s approval. “This is a critical step toward connecting our students with the skills they need for in-demand careers right out of high school.”

The Swiss model

After the 2023 law passed, Indy Chamber led a delegation of more than 100 Hoosier business leaders to Switzerland, which has become known for its apprenticeship model in education.

The country’s dual-track apprenticeship system offers students the flexibility to gain on-the-job training with a host company while taking lessons at a vocational school. About 70% of Swiss students enroll in a vocational program by the time they reach age 15, while the rest continue on a traditional high school track by preparing for education in fields like health care or the liberal arts.

Students who might not be ready to begin an apprenticeship or move on to advanced education have the option to do an extra year of what would be the equivalent of high school in the United States. They can also do a pre-apprenticeship program or attend a school that prepares them for enrolment in vocational education and training.

“They’ve got a really efficient apprenticeship system, and it elevates Swiss labor productivity,” said Philip Powell, a professor of economics at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business who attended the trip to Europe. “It helps to reduce the transaction costs in their labor markets. It offers some promise for central Indiana.”

Sen. Jeff Raatz, a Republican from Richmond and chair of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, also went on the trip and said Indiana can take best practices from the Switzerland model without completely revamping the state’s education system.

“We’re not Switzerland. I don’t think anyone’s trying to be Switzerland,” Raatz said. “But there’s no state in our country that’s figured this out, so we have to look at and learn from others and figure out what can be taken away from that in a positive way. I think there’s a lot of opportunity, and I think we’ve only just gotten started.”

DeLaney, the Democratic lawmaker from Indianapolis, is more skeptical. He considers the career fund to be another addition to what he calls the “educational industrial complex” in Indiana.

“There are more and more entities buying into education, profiting off of education,” he said. “We’ve got all these organizations telling us how to teach. We need to get the money and the people and the power back into schools.”•

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