Fewer Americans are in the workforce because they can’t access the education and training needed for many of those jobs, according to the president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS).
Speaking at the first House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing of the year — which looked at myriad K-12 and postsecondary issues over more than three hours on Wednesday — Monty Sullivan said the skills requirements for available and emerging jobs in the U.S. continues to grow and change. But potential workers are struggling to acquire those skills through education and training.
“There are far too many people on the sidelines” rather than participating in the economy, Sullivan said, pointing to a labor force participation rate that has steadily dropped over the decades to 62.4% last month.
Many prospective learners want access to quality, short-term programs to get the jobs they seek, Sullivan said. While enrollment is down in credit-enrolled programs at most Louisiana community and technical colleges, “students are showing up at our doorsteps in long lines because they want to participate in short-term, non-credit programs,” he said.
Workforce Pell as a first step
Sullivan recommended expanding the Pell Grant program to cover qualifying short-term workforce programs. He said it is the “single most important step Congress can take” to address the nation’s skill shortage.
“Students need the shortest and least expensive pathways to employment with opportunities for advancement throughout their lives,” Sullivan said.
Students who complete short-term workforce programs earn more than the initial earnings of students in traditional credit programs that are Pell-eligible, Sullivan noted.
Workforce Pell is gaining bipartisan support in both congressional chambers. Leaders on House and Senate education and workforce committees this week emphasized the importance of trying to extend Pell in this session of Congress.
‘No wrong door’
Sullivan also said there must be a “no wrong door” approach to education and workforce to serve all students, whether they are new high school graduates or adult basic education students.
“There must be a clear path to an education and the American Dream for everyone,” he said.
Supports for adult learners are vital, Sullivan stressed. He noted that, while parents provide an example for their children, many parents in Louisiana don’t have a college education.
“Let’s give those parents an opportunity to get skilled and be an example,” he said.
Another recommendation: update and improve the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).
The current WIOA system is stretched too thin, Sullivan said, meaning it’s not fully effective in providing workforce development skills. Sullivan said WIOA funds should be targeted toward providing workforce development through individual training accounts. He also recommended improved coordination with the Higher Education Act (HEA) and making changes that would strengthen the role of community colleges in the overall WIOA workforce development system.
House leaders have said they plan to work on reauthorizing WIOA and HEA in this Congress.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) also encouraged the expansion of WIOA, particularly to increase wraparound supports, such as childcare and transportation, for students of all ages.
“These wraparound services provided by WIOA are critical,” Polis said at the hearing.
He said WIOA needs to be “flexible” enough to ensure individuals can get the supports they need in order to get skills training.
Colorado, using American Rescue Act funds, also has increased access to skills training by providing free community and technical college for students pursuing a career in healthcare. The state is looking to expand the effort to other fields with critical job shortages, such as early childhood education.
Sullivan also talked about the need for education systems and employers to work together. He pointed to a partnership between General Dynamics IT (GDIT) and Bossier Parish Community College as an example of success. GDIT employs about 1,000 people on the premises of the college.
And in the New Orleans area, a mechatronics apprenticeship program, developed in conjunction with Greater New Orleans, Inc., brings together three LCTCS colleges to meet the workforce needs of three manufacturing businesses.
Sullivan noted in his testimony that “we must have a strong policy platform that welcomes business partners to the table to help solve” the workforce challenge.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) touted his state’s distinction of being the country’s lead manufacturer and exporter of tires – due in part to training being done at the state’s technical and community colleges.
Industry/education partnerships are increasing in Colorado, too, according to Polis.
“More than ever, employers are thinking and looking outside the box,” he said. “Now’s the time to convene key employers and talk about how we improve the pipeline of talent.”
Increasing accountability and value
Both committee members and witnesses also talked about the value of education and ensuring that investments have a high return.
Western Governors University President Scott Pulsipher said that higher education should create value for students and connect them to opportunity.
“Outcomes are paramount,” Pulsipher said. “Access without attainment is an empty promise.”
To serve learners, there needs to be “diligence on front end so students aren’t wasting time and money,” Polis said, adding that all providers of education must be accountable.
In terms of the providing value for taxpayers, Polis said it’s also necessary to make sure state and federal governments are getting a return on their investment.
Other hearing highlights
Also during the hearing, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-New Mexico) said she will reintroduce the America’s College Promise Act, which would provide free community college to students. Leger Fernandez’s state now has the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, which launched in the 2022-2023 academic year and covers up to 100% of tuition and required fees and up to $50 per credit hour for course specific fees.
Many committee members also mentioned meeting this week with community college presidents and trustees from their districts who were in town for the Community College National Legislative Summit. The event was hosted by the Association of Community College Trustees and the American Association of Community Colleges.
“It’s community college week in Washington, D.C., and folks are talking about the skills gap,” said Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Michigan).