Whenever Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) has an opportunity to speak during a Senate education and workforce hearing, you can count on him to promote his bill that would allow Pell grants to be used for quality short-term training programs. And his persistence is paying off.
The former Virginia governor did so again on Tuesday during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on workforce development opportunities and ways to overcome barriers to employment. But what was different this time is that the JOBS Act is now part of a competitiveness legislation package that the House passed earlier this month. It now heads to a Senate-House conference, and JOBS Act supporters — which include the American Association of Community Colleges — are optimistic that it will stay in the measure.
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Kaine asked workforce development leaders testifying at Tuesday’s hearing how his proposal could address some of the barriers that learners face to upskilling in training or education programs. Officials from Kentucky and New York state both noted that allowing students interested in short-term career and technical education programs to tap Pell grants would be significant.
Committee members of both sides of the aisle agreed that quality workforce development programs are critical to helping employers desperate for skilled workers to keep their businesses and the economy humming. But many workers looking to upgrade their skills or learners seeking to attain a postsecondary credential often cannot access those opportunities because of child care, transportation, housing and other challenges. Collaborative programs that have embraced wraparound services to help students in workforce programs were a focus of the hearing.
A bipartisan approach?
Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) said she was hopeful that the committee could craft a bipartisan proposal to address the challenges. She noted that the committee has a bipartisan track record on workforce issues, citing the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014 and the reauthorization of the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act in 2018.
Ranking member Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) said he supports a bipartisan effort, but he criticized Democrats for what he called stifling innovative workforce development approaches, such as the federal industry-recognized apprenticeship program. He noted the Biden administration has “paused” the program, which would loosen federal requirements in an effort to attract more companies, particularly small and middle-size businesses, to use apprenticeships.
“Industry-recognized apprenticeships are a promising way to expand the earn-and-learn model in new industries and to reach new populations of workers,” Burr said in his opening statement. “Instead of building on this innovative idea, or working with Republicans on how to improve it, this administration has paused the recognition process. If we’re going to address barriers to employment, we should be using all the tools in our toolbox, not just the tools that labor unions find acceptable.”
Several lawmakers and speakers at Tuesday’s hearing noted that registered apprenticeships are expanding and growing. In New York, for example, the state is seeking to engage more young adults in registered apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship programs, which often come with wraparound support services, according to Melinda Mink, executive director of the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals.