President Joe Biden's latest executive order boosts federal apprenticeship programs and expands the criteria for agency labor-management forums to include employee engagement.

President Joe Biden's latest executive order boosts federal apprenticeship programs and expands the criteria for agency labor-management forums to include employee engagement. Nathan Howard / Getty Images

Biden order expands federal apprenticeships, reestablishes labor-management forums

Federal employee unions say the new order provides much-needed teeth to the president’s existing labor policies.

President Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order aimed at expanding federal agencies’ use of apprenticeship programs to attract and develop young federal workers, as well as reinstating agency labor-management forums that have largely sat dormant since 2017.

White House officials said the measure, entitled Scaling and Expanding the Use of Registered Apprenticeships in Industries and the Federal Government and Promoting Labor-Management Forums, dovetails with the recent push by presidents of both parties to shift how federal agencies evaluate job candidates from a largely based on educational attainment to one that emphasizes applicants’ relevant skills and work experience.

At an event in Madison, Wisc., Wednesday, Vice President Harris touted registered apprenticeship programs as a valuable way for young people to prepare them for good-paying careers at a time when college affordability is at an all-time low, as well as a strong example of the positive outcomes that are possible when unions and employers collaborate.

"Apprentice programs for labor and union apprenticeship programs also pay their apprentices while they’re in the program, which means that people don’t have to worry about whether they have to borrow money in order to receive an education that is for the benefit of the community and its productivity,” she said. “I say all that to say that this is another example of, also, the partnership between our administration and unions, around the apprenticeship programs that they create for young people to enter a profession, enter a career that means a very high quality of life for themselves and their families.”

The order creates a new Registered Apprenticeship Interagency Working Group; led by officials from the Office of Management and Budget, the National Economic Council, Office of Personnel Management and the Labor Department; and tasks it with finding ways to incorporate apprenticeship programs at agencies.

The group also will make recommendations on how to promote the hiring and professional development of apprenticeship program graduates, as well as how such programs can help agencies recruit and retain employees with mission-critical skillsets.

The return of labor-management forums

Although during the Biden administration, some agencies have voluntarily resumed convening regular councils where unions and management share information and collaborate to solve problems, it was not until Wednesday that the president formally rescinded President Trump’s 2017 executive order abolishing labor-management forums.

Labor-management forums are far from a new concept—both Presidents Clinton and Obama prescribed them, while their Republican predecessors dismantled them—but Biden’s iteration of the practice has some new wrinkles. First, while Obama’s executive order establishing the councils focused its success metrics primarily on operational efficiencies, Wednesday’s order adds employee engagement and morale to the calculus.

“Each labor-management forum agency, consistent with any guidance issued by OPM, shall . . . evaluate and document, in consultation with union representatives and any further guidance provided by OPM, changes in employee satisfaction, manager satisfaction and organizational performance resulting from the labor-management forums,” Biden wrote.

Additionally, the order states that the forums must allow union representatives to have “predecisional involvement in workplace matters.” And it requires agencies to submit implementation plans for these goals to OPM within 180 days. OPM, for its part, will review and approve each plan within 60 days, and gain the authority to ensure agencies comply with those plans.

“Upon certification, the head of each labor-management forum agency shall ensure that the certified plan is faithfully executed,” the order states. “Any plan that is determined by OPM to be insufficient shall be returned to the . . . agency with guidance for improvement, and the agency shall resubmit its revised plan to OPM within 30 days of receipt of the original plan from OPM.”

Labor unions quickly got behind the return of labor-management forums, and said it would be a valuable way to buttress some of Biden’s other workforce policies, such as requiring agencies to engage in bargaining over so-called “permissive” subjects.

“These forums provide frontline employees with a more meaningful voice in agency operations and foster discussions about improving the effectiveness of government services,” said Doreen Greenwald, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “It is our experience that predecisional input inherent in conversations between labor and management is a productive means to give employees a say in agency decisions, solve problems in a non-adversarial way, address workplace issues that hinder efficiency and improve services to the American people.”

“The expansion of registered apprenticeships within the federal government will create new opportunities for working Americans to advance their careers and find stable, well-paid employment in the trades while also ensuring our nation is equipped with the skills and expertise needed to meet the challenges of the future,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley. “[Moreover], the executive order holds agencies accountable for implementing previous directives, specifically [Biden’s] executive order focusing on bargaining over permissive subjects. Agencies must now report to the Office of Personnel Management on their compliance, ensuring that President Biden’s pro-worker policies are not just words on paper but actions in practice.”