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Another try at reauthorizing WIA

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Commentary

Scott Ralls
, president of the North Carolina Community College System, testifies on workforce development efforts in his state before a House subcommittee on Tuesday.​​​

​House lawmakers are taking another shot at reauthorizing the nation’s main job training law, something that hasn’t been done since the federal Workforce Investment Act​ (WIA) was enacted in 1998.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee this week introduced the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act, which Republicans say would streamline federal programs and create a single source of employment support for employers and job seekers. On Tuesday, a House subcommittee held a hearing on workforce development, where panelists and lawmakers discussed reauthorizing WIA.

“Nearly two million individuals participated in some form of service authorized under the Workforce Investment Act, but only 14 percent finished the instruction,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who chairs the House higher education and workforce training subcommittee​, said in her opening statement. “Less than half of those who received employment assistance, such as job searches and resume writing, were able to find work.”

“With such a hefty price tag, we must demand better results on behalf of those seeking jobs and the taxpayers footing the bill for this federal maze,” she added.

More local flexibility

The hearing included testimony from workforce training experts—including Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System​—who generally called for streamlining federal job training programs and providing more flexibility to states and localities.

Ralls' submitted testimony​

Ralls noted that the current federal job training system is outdated, citing that regulations requiring rigid training sequences often hinder efforts to provide training as quickly and efficiently as possible. North Carolina has revamped its system on a state level, but it’s harder to do so with federal funding because of red tape.

“Education and training services cannot be at the bottom of the sequence of services,” Ralls said.

Potential pitfalls

House Democrats have also re-introduced their legislation to reauthorize the federal job training law. While both proposals would streamline programs, Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas) noted that the SKILLS Act would consolidate and eliminate 35 WIA programs.

“This approach would only serve to weaken the WIA system,” he said.

AACC federal policy issues, including WIA​

A few members of the subcommittee and panel expressed concerns that eliminating and consolidating programs, coupled with pooled funding, could make it an easy target for budget cuts at a time when training systems are serving more individuals and need more resources to keep pace.

Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, said he is especially worried that job training services in rural areas and hard-to-service populations—such as veterans, at-risk youths and disconnected unemployed workers—could be nixed.

“Consolidation doesn’t address that,” Holzer said.

Letting down vets

Serving the needs of veterans is especially weak in the current system, according to the panelists.

Todd Gustafson, executive director of Michigan Works! Berrien-Cass-Van Buren—himself a veteran—said he is embarrassed by how veterans are served by training systems.

“If you are a vet and come into the wrong door, you are lost,” he said.

Ralls emphasized that more flexibility would allow community colleges and other service providers to expedite trainees through the system. Veterans, who typically already have the basic skills to benefit from specific job training, would especially benefit from accelerated workforce training programs.

Skip the middle man

Subcommittee members—a number of whom have worked at community colleges or attended them—touted the work of two-year colleges, citing their flexibility to serve local workforce needs. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), who previously served as senior vice president of workforce and economic development/general counsel at Ivy Tech Community College (Indiana), expressed concerns with how much of federal funding is absorbed by adminstrative costs instead of going toward actual worker training.

Hinojosa called on “eliminating the middle man” to ensure more federal funding goes to training workers. He provided an analogy that a similar approach of ditching the middle man was taken with the federal student loan system to save costs.

“I’ll be blunt: Eliminate state government,” Hinojosa said.

Political barriers

Whether lawmakers will reauthorize WIA this time is uncertain. Some political poking among subcommittee members entered the discussion on Tuesday. Hinjosa noted that the federal workforce development system is not broken—as Foxx said—but instead requires updating, noting that Congress has already three times failed to reauthorize the law.

Democrats on the subcommittee also took exception to Foxx scheduling a markup on the SKILLS Act for next week, saying there wasn’t enough time to incorporate suggestions, research practices noted by the panelists or to work on a compromise bill.

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