Donald Trump is in the business of putting his name on things that he did not make. Buildings around the world, from Azerbaijan to Brazil to Chicago, things Trump did not build bear his name. His slogan—Make America Great Again—was cribbed from both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. He claims he invented the phrase “priming the pump.” Even his inauguration cake was plagiarized.
So it should come as no surprise that Trump’s workforce-development plan, unveiled Thursday with Trumpian pomp, wasn’t something he built. Instead, he took something that already existed, took out some pieces, reassembled it, and called it his. For good measure, he threw in some magical math.
Progeny shouldn’t matter when it comes to policy, but in this case, the president’s attempted claim for credit is puzzling. Trump has proposed $95 million be earmarked for apprenticeships this year. That’s $5 million more than a bipartisan Obama-era effort laid out. But there are important differences between Trump’s approach to workforce development and his predecessors. He wants the number of apprenticeships in the U.S. to grow from 500,000 to 5 million and the administration and its flacks have credited Ivanka Trump with much of the work that went into the program. Separately, the president has called for slashing federal workforce-development funds by 40 percent and cutting the Department of Labor by about one-fifth.
Under President Obama, Ammar Campa-Najjar led the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs for the Employment & Training Administration. His responsibilities included helping develop the Obama-era plan to double the number of registered apprenticeships. Before Obama left office, he wrote a piece for NBC News urging Trump to continue that work. He’s currently running for Congress as a Democrat in California’s long-red 50th District.
“People say ‘the immigrants are coming’ or ‘the robots are coming,’” says Campa-Najjar. “But apprenticeships help people develop skills so no they don’t lose their jobs if that happens.”
Registered apprenticeships, which grew to 500,000 under Obama, are one of the most effective ways to move up the economic ladder. According to Campa-Najjar (and Ivanka Trump, who has been using the same statistics in promoting the rebranded program), once people complete trade internships, they earn a $60,000 annual income, much higher than the national average. They’re also able to earn an income as they complete their job training and education, which makes it much more financially feasible for people who don’t wish to be saddled with college-levels of debt.
Presidents take credit for work previous administrations did all the time. But Campa-Najjar is a little puzzled by Trump’s erasure of the effort that led to the apprenticeship program’s germination. “He’s trying to distinguish himself from the previous administration on the one thing that was truly bipartisan,” he says. “Last year, Congress made a three-year commitment to invest $270 million in apprenticeships—$90 million last year, $90 million this year, and $90 million next year. I don’t know why Trump wants to make it seem like this is this new idea. It’s an opportunity for him to be a uniter and not a divider.”
In other words, Donald and Ivanka Trump designed this program like the person who shows up with a can of Redi Whip on Thanksgiving designed the pumpkin pie.
For the president, Workforce Development Week was supposed to be a plate of good PR in a five-course meal of broken glass. (On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that investigators were looking into whether Trump himself attempted to obstruct justice in a special prosecutor’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.) His campaign bluster hasn’t translated into real-world results; he’s accomplished very little of what he set out to do, despite having a sympathetic House and Senate. His social-media habits and usually boorish public persona are a national embarrassment. Despite glimmers of composure, his approval ratings are at new lows. Donald Trump is about as popular as a pubic hair in a punch bowl.
So he is hungry for a win. But accomplishing the prodigious goal of increasing the number of internships tenfold with only a $5 million additional investment and slashes to other workforce-development programs seems irrationally exuberant, a prognostication more befitting Donald Quixote than Donald Trump.
Campa-Najjar said he believes that without federal investment, the program won’t work. “Germany and Switzerland are showing the expanding numbers Trump wants to see in apprenticeship,” he says. “But they’re investing boldly. Five million dollars is a rounding error by comparison.” And Trump’s odds of meeting his goals, given his unwillingness to commit more federal money? “Impossible.”
“I just want to see the best policies in place,” Campa-Najjar said. “I don’t care what Trump calls it. I don’t care if he pretends the work that me and my colleagues did for eight years didn’t happen. Public servants shouldn’t care about who gets credit. This is important.”