As Congress begins to look at revamping the nation’s main workforce development legislation, members of a House workforce investment subcommittee on Thursday offered a glimpse of their broad goals, with Democrats leaning toward more funding and Republicans seeking more private investment and better use of federal dollars.
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Florida), chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee, said at a hearing on reauthorizing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) that Congress has underfunded workforce development programs under WIOA, making their services largely unavailable to many workers and businesses. Adjusted for inflation, federal funding for workforce systems has decreased by nearly 20% over the past decade, she said. Specifically, WIOA’s core dislocated worker programs were appropriated funding below authorized levels by a combined $500 million between fiscal years 2016 and 2020.
“In fact, in the last program year, only around 30% of people who interacted with the public workforce system were actually able to access training because of the lack of funding,” Wilson said.
Such programs have shown to be crucial and will continue to be important as the nation’s economy begins to hum again, Wilson said. In 2019, WIOA’s displaced worker programs served more than 250,000 people, with more than 70% of those workers employed one year after they left, she said.
Aside from more funding, Wilson would like to see more services included to help a broader range of displaced workers, including services to prevent workers from being displaced in the first place.
“Currently, workers displaced by trade receive comprehensive support under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act, but workers displaced for other reasons have access to a far more limited range of services under WIOA,” Wilson said.
Republicans didn’t appear warm to the idea of increasing federal funding for WIOA. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), the ranking member on the House Education and Labor Committee, said she would like to see more involvement from the private sector in providing job preparation and related-services as companies directly benefit from that. She said more federal funding is not needed, but rather current programs should be run more effectively and efficiently. She added that funding in the various pandemic relief packages also contain opportunities that could help with workforce development.
“I don’t think we need more money in these programs. I don’t think the money is being spent very well, and I don’t think that all the resources that are available to employers are being used wisely,” Foxx said.
A partnership in rural Virginia
One partnership highlighted at the hearing was Microsoft’s Data Center Academy program, which has worked with community colleges and training providers, including Southside Virginia Community College, to provide scholarships, hands-on lab experience, recognized credentials, internships and job opportunities in more rural areas.
Federal dollars can leverage programs and help to convene partners to better determine the needs of a community, said Portia Wu, Microsoft’s managing director for public policy and a former U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) official. For example, through the academy project, the partners learned many students’ electronic devices were inadequate and the electrical systems at the college needed upgrades to run the labs.
The panel also discussed equity among workforce development.
“Digital skills have become as foundational as literacy and numeracy,” Wu said.
As part of their workforce strategic plans, governors should address digital skill needs for all state residents, particularly those in underserved communities, she said. State and federal policymakers also should assess the state of digital skills training, test new approaches to address needs and bring those that work to scale.
More career coaching
Several of the testifying witnesses on Thursday backed providing more support services, such as career coaches, who could help dislocated workers learn about available jobs in their areas and what skills they require. The services are shown to also improve retention because they more accurately match workers to jobs, they said.
In Colorado, job seekers using “strategic career navigation” systems — a more formal term for career coaching — earn about $12,700 more in annual wages than those who find work on their own, said Joseph Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and former U.S. DOL official.
That recommendation aligned with one from Matt Sigelman, CEO of Buring Glass Technologies, which follows workforce trends. He said the current workforce training system is designed to retrain people from scratch rather than leveraging what workers already know.
“By leveraging ‘skill adjacencies,’ the workforce system can place people more quickly, less expensively and with greater long‐term success,” he said.
Help for incumbent workers
Several of the witnesses also supported more training for incumbent workers, which would be especially helpful for long-term workers who may find themselves out of a job and lacking the required technology and digital skills for available opportunities.
“Employer-provided training is the single greatest source of skills attainment for working adults, particularly when it comes to technology skills,” Wu said.
She encouraged lawmakers to support workforce system partnerships, expand the flexibility and amount of funds they can use for incumbent worker training, and encourage states to allow incumbent worker training funds to go toward digital skills training. Only 23 states explicitly allow state incumbent worker training funds to apply toward digital skills training, and current federal investment fails to reach scale necessary to meet worker or business needs, she said in her written testimony.