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It’s Past Time to Reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act

Congress Needs to Move on Bill to Keep America Competitive

SOURCE: AP/Greg Gibson

President Bill Clinton signs the Workforce Investment Act into law in 1998. The law was originally supposed to be reauthorized every five years but that's not how things have worked out. Reauthorizing it every year prevents a more stable foundation for long-term planning.

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Last week the Senate HELP Committee once again rescheduled its markup of a bill to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act, or WIA. The markup is now scheduled for August 3. Let’s hope the committee moves forward soon to reauthorize this important legislation. Our nation’s workforce is recovering in fits and starts from the lingering recession and it’s long past time to update our employment and job-training system to better prepare American workers for the economic opportunities of the coming decade.

Let’s go over once more why WIA needs to be reauthorized—for five years instead of one—and the most important points for legislators to keep in mind as they update the law.

We need WIA 2.0

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 was a significant piece of reform legislation that substantially improved the nation’s federal job-training, unemployment, adult education, and vocational rehabilitation programs. It created the One-Stop Career Center system, which enables job seekers to visit a single center in their community to get assistance with labor market information, resume writing, skill assessment, career counseling, adult basic education, unemployment benefits, and potentially enroll in a job-training program.

In addition, advisors for military veterans and individuals with disabilities were added to the One-Stops to provide additional employment assistance for these groups. And a handful of related federal programs—such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Housing and Urban Development, and the Senior Community Service Employment Program—co-located their offices in the One-Stops.

Overall, WIA was a major step forward for employers and unemployed job seekers.

But WIA’s original authors also understood that it was a work in progress. In a fit of humility, Congress limited WIA’s authorization to five years in recognition that future policymakers should have the opportunity to evaluate the new system and improve on it. In theory, every five years a new group of senators and representatives would work with state and local leaders, the business community, and policy experts to address emerging economic challenges and chart a new course for employment and job-training policy.

Unfortunately, that isn’t how the legislative process has worked. The global economy continues to change—becoming increasingly dependent on innovation, technology, and skill—but WIA remains stuck in 1998.

Short-term vs. long-term authorizations

Over the past eight years, Congress has relied on annual appropriations bills to extend WIA’s authorization one year at a time. These appropriations bills often make modest policy changes. Some of the policy changes are retained in subsequent years but continuity isn’t guaranteed.

For instance, the Recovery Act of 2009 included a provision to allow local workforce investment boards—the local leadership groups in charge of public job-training funds—to contract for training slots with community colleges or eligible training providers.[1] This flexibility enabled local workforce leaders to develop customized education and training programs and link those programs to regional industries and business strategies. Prior to this provision, some important training programs weren’t offered because community colleges and eligible training providers couldn’t ensure sufficient enrollment for the courses—even if the demand existed.

More recently, the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2011 included $125 million for a new Workforce Innovation Fund.[2] The WIF is a grant competition intended to support innovative employment and job-training strategies or replicate programs that have proven to be successful. Like other social innovation programs, workforce innovation grants can have a disproportionate impact on their local communities by leveraging private-sector resources.

Based on these examples it might be reasonable to assume that WIA should cruise along for another 13 years with modest adjustments and one-year extensions through the appropriations process. But that would be a mistake.

Provisions enacted through the appropriations process are only guaranteed for a single year. They have to be repeated in each subsequent appropriations bill to stay in effect, which means that state and local policymakers cannot factor these changes into their long-term plans. Both the contracting provision and WIF could disappear next year, and that type of uncertainty diminishes their potential long-term impact.

Amidst partisan gridlock it makes sense to enact annual extensions and short-term modifications to maintain funding for our employment and job-training system. But it isn’t the most effective way to build a competitive workforce. The reality is that our workforce system needs a more systemic overhaul than is possible through the appropriations process.

Keeping pace with a changing economy

The global economy has undergone significant changes since the 1990s. Rapidly developing economies such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China—the so-called BRIC countries—have dramatically increased their capacity to produce quality goods and services. And industrialized countries such as Japan, Germany, and Great Britain, among others, continue to improve their workforce capabilities. These are long-term challenges to America’s economic standing—threatening to further erode the strength of our middle class–unless we improve the competitiveness of our workforce.

Here in the United States, our economy continues to shift toward technological innovation and knowledge-based products and services. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that 63 percent of American jobs in 2018 will require some college education. While that type of shift should be a positive development, it is alarming because only 56 percent of American workers are currently qualified to fill those jobs.[3]

Many of those skilled positions will require bachelor’s degrees or advanced degrees. But there will also be significant growth in jobs requiring associate’s degrees or industry-recognized credentials. The problem is that we aren’t developing a sufficient number of workers with those skills, either. The Center on Education and the Workforce projects that we will need to produce nearly 5 million additional workers with industry-recognized credentials by 2018.[4]

To maintain our position as the world’s economic leader, we need to educate and train our workers to fill the skilled jobs of the knowledge-based economy. And to help us get there, Congress needs to overhaul WIA to refocus the system on long-term human capital development instead of short-term crisis intervention.

Congress should provide a new five-year blueprint for WIA with the flexibility for local leaders to move their employment and job-training systems in the right direction. A reauthorization bill would provide a stable foundation for long-term planning. State and local leaders could use the opportunity to better align federal programs, increase accountability, improve career services offered to job seekers, strengthen partnerships with the private sector, and most importantly boost the number of American workers earning college degrees and industry-recognized credentials.

Modernizing the Workforce Investment Act

Which brings us back to the Senate HELP Committee’s draft bill to reauthorize WIA.

Last month I posted an analysis of the Senate HELP Committee’s draft bill. Instead of repeating those points, I will simply highlight a few of the important issues that can only be addressed through a new reauthorization.

Aligning and coordinating job-training programs

First, the Senate HELP Committee’s draft bill addresses recent criticism about multiple job-training programs providing similar services to overlapping populations. There’s a lot of confusion about this issue—often in regards to a recent Government Accountability Office report on potential duplication in government programs. But GAO Director Andrew Sherrill clarified during his in-person testimony to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that GAO did not find any duplication of services in its analysis of federal job-training programs. Instead, it’s more accurate to say that GAO identified multiple programs that offer similar job-search and job-training services but those services are provided to different clientele.

For instance, WIA’s Dislocated Worker program funds employment and job-training services for workers with years of work experience who have recently lost their jobs. In contrast, WIA’s Adult Education program funds remedial education—including basic literacy and numeracy—for low-skill adults to assist them in their efforts to complete a high school education and find employment. The underlying populations receiving services are different but in some cases the job-search or job-training activities are similar.

Many of those programs will continue to offer overlapping services without coordinating their efforts under one-year extensions of the current WIA system.

But the Senate’s reauthorization bill requires states to develop and submit a unified state plan that includes “a strategy for aligning the core programs, as well as other resources available to the State” for educating and training their workforce. The core programs to be aligned in the unified state plan include six job-training programs identified in the GAO report. In addition, the unified state plan is required to explain how core programs “will be aligned with activities provided under employment, training, education and human services programs not covered by the plan.”

So the Senate bill effectively requires each state to submit a comprehensive plan to align and coordinate its job-training efforts, which is a significant improvement over the current system.

Standardizing performance measures

Second, the Senate’s reauthorization bill responds to concerns about conflicting performance measures across WIA programs. Critics point out that WIA currently includes a variety of performance measures that vary from program to program, forming a bureaucratic bottleneck. These differing performance measures create an unnecessary disincentive for local workforce officials to enroll job seekers in multiple services due to their conflicting reporting requirements.

For instance, WIA’s Dislocated Worker program uses performance measures that focus solely on short-term employment and earnings without any corresponding measures for attainment of industry-recognized credentials. In contrast, WIA’s Adult Education program uses performance measures that focus on educational attainment outcomes and short-term employment without any corresponding measure for earnings. CAP believes that all training programs should report how many participants acquire a degree, credential, or diploma.

Unfortunately, state and local agencies are stuck with the current performance measures until Congress reauthorizes WIA and allows them to standardize measures across job-training programs.

The Senate draft bill establishes common performance measures across all core programs, including Title I State Grants, Title II Adult Education, Title III Wagner-Peyser, and Title IV Vocational Rehabilitation. The new performance measurements will enable local workforce boards to maximize their resources and improve services for job seekers who have the greatest need of assistance.

Focusing on human capital development

And third, the Senate draft bill takes important steps to shift the employment and job-training system away from short-term crisis intervention and toward long-term solutions such as more college degrees, industry-recognized credentials, and contextualized adult education programs. CAP has long advocated for this change. Our employment and job-training system needs to realign its priorities by putting job seekers on a path toward long-term careers and self-sufficiency.

Without reauthorization it is unlikely that state and local agencies will make more than modest changes, at best, to realign their spending priorities.

The Senate draft bill includes a new performance measure that explicitly tracks the percentage of program participants obtaining postsecondary credentials. This is a big improvement over the current system. It adds a significant incentive for local workforce boards to devote more job-training resources to programs leading to college degrees and industry-recognized credentials.

The reauthorization draft bill also emphasizes the importance of career pathways programs. Career pathways span the full range of education and training services, from remedial adult education through full associate’s degree programs. The programs offer clear sequences of coursework to move from lower skill levels all the way to associate’s degrees, with multiple entry and exit points along the way. CAP strongly supports this effort to help job seekers move from entry-level courses to college-level skills that lead to middle-class jobs.

In addition, the Senate draft bill supports the expansion of industry or sector partnerships. These partnerships are collaborations between a community college and an individual business, group of firms, chamber of commerce, industry association, or industry sector. The partnerships combine public and private resources, including finances, human resources, facilities, equipment, and expertise.

For instance, in 1996 United Parcel Service considered moving its hub from Louisville, Kentucky, because it was having trouble staffing its Next Day Air shift. As the largest employer in the state, the loss of UPS would have been devastating to local residents and the regional economy.

Fortunately, the temporary crisis led to the creation of Metropolitan College—a collaboration between UPS, state and local government, and Jefferson Community and Technical College. UPS provides part-time employment for students in the program, pays half the cost of tuition, and provides reimbursement for textbooks. The state and local governments pay the other half of tuition and provide students with access to JCTC and the University of Louisville. Students who participate in Metropolitan College work part time on the Next Day Air night shift with full-time benefits while attending college during the day.

The benefit of these partnerships, in our view, is twofold. First, these partnerships lead to the development of alternate pathways to postsecondary credentials that are explicitly linked to the labor market—especially for individuals who are not on a traditional college track. And second, they increase overall investment in education and job training by leveraging additional resources from the private sector.

Conclusion

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 helped shape the employment and job-training system into its current form. But it was never intended to last forever. The reauthorization process offers a new generation of senators and representatives an opportunity to update and improve WIA for a new generation of workers.

The new reauthorization should also last for five years. That would provide a sufficient timeframe to evaluate this round of policy changes and identify newly developing economic challenges. In five years, a new group of congressional leaders will have the opportunity to work with state and local leaders, the business community, and policy experts to shape the next iteration of the employment and job-training system.

CAP believes that WIA, at its core, should be a human capital development program. Employment and job-training programs should focus on developing a skilled and competitive workforce amidst a constantly evolving global economy. But in order to move in that direction, it is important to move forward on reauthorization.

Endnotes

[1]. Public Law 111-5.

[2]. Public Law 112-10.

[3]. Anthony Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018” (Washington: Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 2010).

[4]. Ibid.

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