Democrats and Republicans agree that the nation’s main workforce education law isn’t yielding as many skilled workers as business and industry need. But how to revamp the legislation is where the sides split.
A House hearing Thursday on what’s needed to update the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to better serve employers and employees shed light on how the parties generally want to approach the reauthorization. Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce’s Higher Education and Workforce Development Subcommittee said more funding is needed for the programs, arguing that more training is needed for jobs that require more skills and have higher wages. But those efforts are also more costly. Republicans, meanwhile, targeted accountability and red tape, contending that too much money is wasted on administrative purposes, and unnecessary bureaucracy keeps employers from tapping the programs.
Republicans said ineffective WIOA programs should be trimmed instead of “doubling down on the status quo,” said Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), chair of the subcommittee. He said only about one-third of those participating in WIOA engaged in any type of skills development, and fewer than 100,000 people completed their programs in the most recent year for which data are available.
“We cannot continue to support programs in WIAO that fail to deliver the skills our economy needs and demands,” he said in his opening statement.
“We can’t support WIOA programs that don’t work,” he said, adding that private sector investment is also essential.
Democrats, meanwhile, emphasized funding increases not only for workforce education but for wraparound supports, such as housing, childcare and transportation.
“The need for this investment is more urgent than ever,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Florida), citing that the U.S. spends far less on workforce development programs than other developed countries.
“Increasing our investment is the only way to stay competitive,” she said.
Wilson also criticized a House GOP proposal to cut federal spending as part of an overall plan to reduce the federal debt, saying it would close access to workforce development programs and services for 750,000 job seekers.
Support for Workforce Pell
In what appears to be continued growing political support for so-called Workforce Pell — which would extend Pell eligibility to certain high-quality, short-term workforce education programs — several lawmakers from both parties at the hearing expressly supported the idea. Even key Democrats who have been cautious about the idea seemed more amenable to the idea with certain safeguards to ensure quality programs yield results.
“How do you guarantee that if we were to pass short-term Pell that it would only be available for quality programs?” asked Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), ranking member of the full Education and the Workforce Committee. “That’s what we’re working on right now.”
Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, said that Workforce Pell could help supplement workforce development funding. Only about $500 million in federal funding is spent on actual training for about 220,000 people per year, with each person, on average, receiving a little more than $2,000 for training, Holzer said. He compared that to the Pell Grant program, which serves 6 million people annually and provides up to nearly $7,000 per grant.
“There’s a great imbalance,” Holzer said.
Few employers tap WIOA
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that too few employers use WIOA to help fill workforce shortages. But they differed on the reasons for that. Wilson said only 8% of employers tap WIOA due to insufficient funding. Republicans, on the other hand, argued few employers use the federal programs because there’s too much red tape.
Both approaches culled support from panelists.
“The key to getting companies to use WIOA services is to keep it simple,” said Bruce Ferguson, CEO of CareerSource Northeast Florida, the regional workforce board serving the Jacksonville region. “Too often, our system and regulatory bodies turn what should be a simple and concise application and agreement into an overly complex process, resulting in employers turning away from our services.”
He cited several examples of businesses in his service area that are leveraging WIOA. Grace Aerospace, a small manufacturer with military and commercial clients, used the federal program to train an employee as a trainer who then helped seven workers upgrade their skills, which came with a minimum 10% pay increase. Flagler Health, meanwhile, started a new apprenticeship program to tackle a surgical technician shortage, with help from Career Source. Upon completion, participants saw their wages increase from $15 to $19 an hour, he said.
Kudos for community colleges
The flexibility and effectiveness of community colleges were also noted several times during the hearing. Rep. Brandon Williams (R-New York) highlighted the work of New York’s Onandago and Mohawk Valley community colleges in serving students and local employers. Later, Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Georgia) said she wants to make the U.S. Department of Labor’s Strengthening Community Colleges Training Grants program permanent. In her area, Gwinnett Technical College and Georgia Piedmont Technical College are some of the best and most frequent providers of training for the workforce system, she said, “yet there is no dedicated funding to support these community colleges through WIOA.”
When she asked the panel of witnesses what value community colleges bring to the workforce development system, Holzer said: “Community colleges are the only institution in America that could deliver job training at a scale remotely close to what our labor force and economy needs.”
However, community colleges face overwhelming expectations — an academic mission, developing pathways to four-year colleges and effective job training — and many are strapped for funds, which stretches them thin, Holzer continued. An example, he said is community colleges generally don’t offer much career guidance for students, which is a result of lean funding.
Innovation in the field
The hearing also explored alternatives to a four-year college degree, with panelists sharing what was happening in the field, from company-developed certificate programs to growing interest in apprenticeships, and partnerships with community colleges for general training and custom training.
Lydia Logan, vice president for global education and workforce development at IBM, highlighted the company’s SkillsBuild program that it shares free of cost, and its apprenticeships, which it is working with community college partners to develop a path toward associate degrees. She also noted IBM has dropped its four-year degree requirement for half of its U.S. jobs postings.
“That resulted in a more diverse applicant pool, and almost 20% of our U.S. hires joining without a degree,” she said.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), chair of the full Education and the Workforce Committee, touted IBM’s much acclaimed P-Tech program, an early college program for high school students that starts in their freshmen year. She said it should be a national model.
“We can’t wait till students graduate from high school to start working on helping them gain the skills they need for a productive career,” she said.