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Opening Doors to Women in the Workforce

Making the Workforce Investment Act Work for Women

Liz Wess explains why the Workforce Investment Act doesn’t always work for women and how Congress can improve it in this year’s reauthorization.

Two women learn to write a resume during a class at JobTrain, an educational and training institution that also offers career counseling and job placement services in Menlo Park, California. (AP/Paul Sakuma)
Two women learn to write a resume during a class at JobTrain, an educational and training institution that also offers career counseling and job placement services in Menlo Park, California. (AP/Paul Sakuma)

The U.S. workforce development system is crucial to helping workers find a job and receive training. But the current system is not working well for women workers.

The Workforce Investment Act, or WIA, is federal legislation that authorizes and funds local service providers around the country. These One-Stops provide workers with information about employment and access to job training for some. The problem is that WIA emphasizes quick job placement over training for better jobs, and the system is not set up to recognize and prevent unequal results for women, people of color, or other groups. A new CAP report released last week, “Opening Doors: How to Make the Workforce Investment Act Work for Women,” examines how to make WIA work better for women in anticipation of congressional reauthorization of the bill this year.

As the report points out, the current system particularly hurts women because WIA worsens labor market inequalities. Women enter mostly low-skill, low-wage “women’s jobs,” and they earn much lower wages than men. This occurs even for women who receive training—the highest level of WIA service. The report didn’t examine segregation or wage gaps by race or ethnicity, but anecdotal evidence indicates that these inequities may exist for women of color as well as for women generally.

Women who are self-supporting need access to training for well-paying jobs leading to self-sufficiency so that they can provide themselves and their families with housing, food, child care, and other essentials without public subsidies. Job training and education are especially important to women who do not have education beyond high school, and postsecondary education is crucial to obtaining a job that pays a family-sustaining wage in today’s economy.

Several improvements to both the WIA statute and its operation on the ground would provide greater opportunities for women and other economically disadvantaged groups to access good jobs and job training.

Most importantly, Congress and local WIA operators should be proactive about improving equality. WIA staff must actively work to ensure that women and other disadvantaged groups receive good, up-to-date information about the earning potential of all jobs so that they can make a fully informed choice about a career or educational path, rather than being directed to low-wage, low-skill jobs. Women would greatly benefit from WIA staff emphasizing and providing encouragement for their entry into jobs that are nontraditional for their gender because traditionally male jobs pay significantly more than traditionally female jobs.

WIA programs should incorporate career-development services through case management and career counseling, as well as provide supportive services and conduct outreach to low-wage women and others who could benefit from WIA services. Career counseling is especially important for women who face barriers to accessing good jobs, including nontraditional occupations for their gender. WIA should also shift its focus to job training and education rather than crisis intervention through quick job placement so that women can build their skills and obtain better jobs.

Finally, additional measurements of the WIA system’s performance would incentivize a focus on equal outcomes among women and other groups. It should specifically look at WIA participants’ training for and employment in nontraditional jobs, their ability to attain self-sufficiency, and their success in earning an educational credential.

These improvements to the Workforce Investment Act would help set women workers on the path to self-sufficiency and more rewarding career paths.

Liz Weiss is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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