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The National Apprenticeship Act is Eastern Connecticut’s gift to our nation’s workforce

In 1937, a freshman member of Congress from Norwich, former Rep. William Fitzgerald, led a successful effort to enact America’s first and only National Apprenticeship Act. After being signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, the Fitzgerald Act, as it is still known today, went on to buoy our nation through war and peace, boosting America’s economy and workforce by way of its Registered Apprenticeship system.

Fitzgerald was uniquely suited to spearhead this law. He started working in a Connecticut foundry as a teen and rose from the factory floor to the foreman’s office, then to commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Labor, mayor of Norwich, and member of Congress. In transcripts from his committee hearings, Fitzgerald described how as a 15-year-old he was exploited by unscrupulous employers, and passionately argued in favor of national standards in a Registered Apprenticeship Program to protect workers and ensure that the skill certificates they were laboring towards were of high quality.

Apprenticeship “earn as you learn” programs are still highly prized in eastern Connecticut — at Electric Boat in Groton, Collins and Jewel in Bozrah, and Sound Manufacturing in Old Saybrook, to name a few. The Fitzgerald Act is simple: it instructs the U.S. Secretary of Labor to connect employers with workers to develop national standards for apprenticeship programs in different occupations, which then are deployed through state agencies to Registered Apprenticeship Programs in all 50 states.

With that elegant framework, Fitzgerald apprenticeships have expanded to 1,200 recognized occupations with thousands enrolled each year. Upon completion of a Registered Apprenticeship, a worker earns on average $70,000 per year. That success has occurred despite tiny and sporadic federal funding for the program, which has effectively shut out millions of other Americans from the opportunity to pursue a different career path than two-year and four-year higher education degrees.

On Feb. 5, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the first reauthorization of the Fitzgerald Act in 84 years, H.R. 447, with a solid bipartisan tally of 247-173. This bill, now pending in the Senate, would size-up the number of available apprenticeship slots with stable, dedicated funding to state labor agencies and competitive grants to expand apprenticeship programs into new sectors of the economy, creating more job opportunities and helping to enroll previously underserved populations like young women and minorities.

The much-needed reforms in H.R. 447 will open the doors to apprenticeships and new opportunities to millions more Americans, but the bill still retains the crown jewel of Congressman Fitzgerald’s vision: safeguarding nationwide standards so that workers and employers can trust the certifications are high-quality, and thus transportable. Opponents of the bill, in the name of “streamlining,” sought to strip national standards and to fund ad hoc programs to be developed at each workplace, with no protection of workers or taxpayer dollars. Without any national consistency, that sort of model would degrade the value of an apprenticeship certificate and quality skill training that Fitzgerald passionately advocated.

In 2021, as our nation and economy emerge from the pandemic, there will undoubtedly be a great need for many to re-tool their skills to get their lives and their families back on track. Expanding Fitzgerald apprenticeships for those seeking a faster path to economic self-sufficiency is exactly what our nation needs to recover from the COVID-19 recession. Our region should be bursting with pride that a congressman from Norwich with a high school education is still at the center of our nation’s debate about restarting its middle-class.

The Senate should heed Fitzgerald's vision and pass the 2021 National Apprenticeship Act.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney represents Connecticut's Second District. He is a Democrat.

 

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