The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits anyone under the age of 18 to work in “hazardous occupations.” But President Donald Trump’s Department of Labor is working to relax these protections for young workers, according to draft documents obtained by Bloomberg Law.
Currently, 16- and 17-year-old apprentices are prohibited from getting extra training in certain dangerous jobs, ranging from operating power-driven woodworking and meat-processing machines to forest fire fighting. The new proposal would unwind the protections that 16- and 17-year-olds currently have.
This effort aligns with Trump’s mission to expand the “earn-as-you-learn” model to more Americans. Last June, Trump signed an executive order that allocates $200 million in taxpayer dollars to fund apprenticeship programs. In 2016, the Labor Department spent $90 million on apprenticeship grants.
Approximately 440,000 apprentices (less than 1% of the workforce) participate in registered programs across nine industries: construction, manufacturing, telecommunications, information technology, service and retail, health care, the military, and public utilities.
With student loan debt in the U.S. rising to $1.5 trillion, apprenticeship programs may be a great alternative to many, especially those who don’t pursue a traditional higher education.
“There has been great focus on four-year higher education, and in reality, that is not the right path for everyone,” said Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and assistant, who is spearheading the apprenticeship program.
This idea of “upskilling America” is very much a bipartisan issue. According to a 2016 memo by Tom Perez, who served as labor secretary under President Barack Obama, 91% percent of apprentices are employed after completing their programs and the average starting salary for someone coming out of a program is over $60,000. For every dollar employers invest in an apprentice, they get back $1.47 in “increased productivity, reduced waste, and greater innovation,” the memo noted.
However, rolling back protections for minors could potentially lead to more fatalities and injuries for youth, particularly as many apprenticeship programs involve manual labor.
“When I started doing this kind of work 20 years ago, we were losing 70 kids a year at work, and now we are losing usually 20 or less. We’ve made substantial progress, and I think that the tightened hazardous occupations rules have played a role in the lowered death tolls for teenage workers. So I would not be in favor of relaxing any of these standards; I think it would be a tragic mistake and would lead to the death of teenage workers,” Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, told Bloomberg Law.
Bloomberg reports that the Department of Labor will propose the update by October.
Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.