With the “skills gap” much in the news, the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA) is up for reauthorization – again. The law structures our nation’s workforce development system and was responsible for creating local employer-led workforce investment boards (WIBs) and one-stop career centers across the country.
Reauthorization was due in 2003, but never happened. The decade-long partisan deadlock, on an eminently negotiable issue of great concern to both employers and job seekers, stands as a symbol of what’s wrong in Washington.
The U.S. House of Representatives last Friday passed the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act, a Republican bill that would consolidate or eliminate 35 federally-funded job training programs and increase employer influence in the workforce development system. (A Democratic alternative, introduced by Rep. John Tierney, D-MA, and two co-sponsors, was defeated on a party-line vote.)
The SKILLS Act, which would also freeze spending levels on the programs for seven years, prevailed by a 215-202 vote, reflecting something short of solid GOP support. It is unlikely to fare well in the Democratic-majority Senate.
Apart from the funding freeze, the SKILLS bill has two controversial aspects. First, Republicans argue that the program consolidation would make the system more effective and efficient. Democrats cannot deny this, but charge that elimination of categorical grants would mean abandonment of targeted services for such groups as veterans, ex-offenders and at-risk youth.
Second, Republicans want to increase employer representation on workforce investment boards from 51 percent to two-thirds, to make them responsive to actual employment opportunities. Democrats counter that this would “lock out” unions, community-based organizations, and community colleges from influence.
As someone who has been involved in workforce development issues for more than three decades (two-thirds of that time with AIM), and who serves on the board of a WIB, I have mixed feelings.
There is no doubt that program consolidation could be a good thing. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found that there are 47 federally administered training programs (some not under WIA) and that almost every one duplicated others. President Obama wants to "cut through the maze of confusing the programs" to make the system more accessible to job-seekers.
Employers complain that categorical programs, targeting specific populations, force them to discriminate among people who are equal in the workplace. WIBs and training providers must sacrifice efficiency of service delivery to carefully balance their clientele, and are precluded from reallocating resources as needed. Those who seek training find the over-complex system discouraging. I do not doubt that (as the Republicans insist) groups in need would continue to receive services without categorical grants, and that the overall system would be improved.
On the question of employer representation on WIBs, my experience suggests that both sides are wrong. A change in the balance of WIBs would not “lock out” labor, CBOs and community colleges – all of which, by the way, make important contributions. On the other hand, WIBs are not, in my view, doing a bad job of identifying needs and opportunities. The problem is how to respond. While the workforce development system as a whole is moving towards greater engagement with real workplace needs – notable progress is being made, for example, in adult basic education, and the recent community college reforms are promising – stronger employer involvement on the program delivery side would make much more difference than WIB super-majorities. And, at least here in Massachusetts, it hasn't been easy to maintain even the currently required simple majority of employers on these boards
Reauthorization of the outdated Workforce Investment Act, with or without a clever acronym, would be a good thing. Consolidating programs to make the system more flexible, efficient and transparent would be a big step forward – for employers, service providers and job-seekers. Letting reauthorization stall (for another 10 years?) over partisan issues that do not even reflect the concerns of supposed constituent groups would be simply irresponsible.