Various federal agencies are dipping into the workforce development area as the Biden administration looks to build more equitable education and job training pathways toward good-paying jobs.
Federal officials from various agencies highlighted their recent efforts in workforce development with an equity lens during a virtual U.S. Education Department summit on Wednesday that focused on equity in career-connected education. It is a new space for agencies such as the departments of Commerce and Transportation. And equity is at the top of those efforts.
Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA), for example, is accepting applications for its new $500 million Good Jobs Challenge, which focuses on building and developing skills-training partnerships to help underserved populations and areas. (The application deadline is Feb. 10.) The program is funded through the American Rescue Plan.
EDA is also exploring partnerships within Commerce, said Michele Chang, EDA’s deputy assistant secretary. For example, it is discussing with the U.S. Census Bureau, which also is within Commerce, on ways to use Census data to help EDA better measure the impact and outcomes of its programs, particularly for underserved populations and communities.
Opportunities in the Infrastructure Act
There are also opportunities in recently passed legislation, such as the Infrastructure Act, said Paige Shevlin, strategic advisor for infrastructure workforce development at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Her job is to help DOT use infrastructure investments to create more high-quality jobs and to ensure there is a diverse, skilled workforce for those jobs.
Infrastructure and transportation already account for 11% of jobs in the U.S., spanning construction, management, logistics, operations, information technology and more, Shevlin said. Many of those jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree, she noted.
However, the sector is not very diverse. About 80% of workers are male, Shevlin said. Much of the Infrastructure Act funding is focused on roads and bridges, which have some of the lowest diversity rates among jobs — 77% white and 97% male, she said.
DOT is trying to change that. It is incorporating diversity and job quality elements into its grants for construction projects. These grants are mostly only available to states, city governments and transportation authorities. However, potential partners can connect with those organizations to find out their short- and long-term workforce needs, Shelvin said. Community colleges can help those entities determine the training landscape, she said, meaning they can identify existing programs that are effective and also which ones are not.
“If a program is not getting outcomes for women and people of color, it is not effective,” Shelvin said.
Other efforts at DOT
The infrastructure law now allows states to use federal highway funding for pre-apprenticeships, apprenticeships and other workforce programs that help to address gaps on a construction project, Shelvin said. Oregon and Maryland are two states that have dedicated a portion of their highway funds to workforce development, she said.
Also, DOT last week announced its new $1.5 billion RAISE grants program. The application asks potential grantees to include their plans for workforce development programs, Shelvin said. The department is also asking them to invest in workforce services for communities and groups underrepresented in the industry.
Upcoming DOL funding
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) also will soon announce new funding for several programs, including a new round of funds for its Strengthening Community College Training Grants program, according to Angela Hanks, acting assistant secretary/principal deputy assistant secretary at DOL’s Employment and Training Administration.
“These are really focused on applying an equity lens to the way that we distribute these grants,” she said. “We want to make sure that they are helping to lead to the development of career pathways that lead to quality jobs.”
In addition, Hanks said DOL will in the next few weeks announce a Building America registered apprenticeship funding opportunity that will prioritize “equity and has a deep focus on marginalized communities.”
Another area Hanks addressed was correctional education and job training. She said there is a deep discrimination in the labor market in hiring former inmates. DOL has programs that aim to help them gain job skills and support services to get jobs in their communities, she said.
DOL does this mainly through its Reentry Employment Opportunities grants, Hanks said. In the coming weeks, the department will announce two funding opportunities through the program.
In his opening of the summit, U.S. Education Education Secretary Miguel Cardona mentioned his department’s work in correctional education. The Education Department is expanding the Second Chance Pell experiment to as many as 200 colleges and universities and their prison education partners. Next year, the program will move toward permanently reinstating Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals in eligible prison education programs.
“This is critical work,” Cardona said.