Workforce Training Bill is Stalled in Senate

California employers are watching a struggle in Washington over streamlining the nation's tangle of job training programs.

In the past 15 years, the manufacturing industry has evolved from needing low-skilled production-type assembly workers to being highly technology-infused. It's no secret that manufacturing companies are now struggling to fill the gap for workers trained with the specific skills needed for today’s advanced manufacturing jobs.

To address this problem and provide training that the youth and the unemployed need to secure jobs, the House passed the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act (H.R. 803) in March 2013, which was authored by Higher Education and Workforce Training subcommittee chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC). The SKILLS Act would revise and reauthorize job training, employment service, adult education and literacy, and rehabilitation programs currently provided under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which has not been reauthorized since its enactment, and is now nearly a decade overdue for reauthorization. The Skills Act would eliminate 35 existing programs and consolidate funding into a single Workforce Investment Fund.

Several governors and workforce training leaders praised the bill: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stated, “By streamlining federal workforce training programs, the SKILLS Act would reduce the administrative burden that current law places on the states. It also provides states with the needed flexibility to tailor job training programs, acknowledging that the needs of New Jersey are surely different than those of other states.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett stated, “The SKILLS Act restores 15% state set-aside funding to support innovative strategies statewide and locally…In addition to providing flexibility and encouraging innovation, the restored state set-aside also supports the needs of our most vulnerable citizens.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott stated, “H.R. 803 proposes a market-driven approach to talent development designed to prepare individuals seeking employment for the jobs of today – and the jobs of tomorrow…Increasing the business representation on state and local boards improves our alignment with market needs.”

Dr. R. Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, noted that it is “important that reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act streamlines programs, limits administrative overhead, and enables state and local flexibility to design systems that meet the legislative goals in the most effective and efficient manner. Simplifying the system and moving past the myriad of multiple program titles and funding streams is a fundamental step.”

Todd Gustafson, executive director of Michigan Works—Berrien-Cass-Van Buren, noted, “Eliminating the 19 federal mandates on representation will further strengthen business engagement. Requiring two-thirds of board members to be employers will enhance the shift from a supply side designed system to a demand or market driven system.”

The Senate version of this bill is S. 1356, the Workforce Investment Act of 2013. On December 19, 2013, nine months after the House passed its version of the bill, a motion to proceed to consideration of the measure was made in the Senate.

During an executive session in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in August 2013, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa delivered the following statement on S.1356, (quoted in part): “It requires states to develop and submit one unified plan to the Secretary of Education and the Secretary of Labor, covering all of the programs authorized under WIA – job training, adult education, employment services, and vocational rehabilitation – streamlining administrative processes at the state level in a thoughtful way. It eliminates several unfunded programs and provides for an innovation fund that will help the system to identify and replicate the most effective strategies for workforce development. It also includes provisions to support better data and evaluations that can be used across all core programs, including common definitions and performance indicators.”

If the Senate passes S. 1356, the measure would then move to conference, a process by which the House and Senate each appoint “conferees” to reconcile the differences between the two pieces of legislation in an effort to produce a version that could gain enough support for passage in both chambers.

How the Bills Compare

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the programs covered by these bills are currently overseen by the Departments of Labor and Education and provide grants to state and local governments as well as to private and nonprofit organizations to provide specified services. Those programs received discretionary funding of $5.5 billion and mandatory funding of $3.1 billion in 2013.

The National Skills Coalition has prepared a side-by-side comparison report on the occupational training and adult education and family literacy provisions in the House and Senate Workforce Investment Act (WIA) reauthorization proposals with current law. The 41-page report goes into considerable detail in comparing the current law with the Skills Act and S. 1356. 

One of the differences between the House Skills Act and the proposed Senate bill is the composition of the membership of the State Board. Under current law, the membership is composed of:

  • Governor
  • Two members of each chamber of the state legislature, and
  • Representatives appointed by the governor, including:
  • Business representatives
  • Chief elected officials (representing both cities and counties where appropriate)
  • Labor representatives
  • Youth organization representatives
  • Representatives of individuals and organizations with experience and expertise in the delivery of workforce investment activities including chief executive officers of community colleges and community based organizations
  • Lead state officials of mandatory partner agencies
  • Other representatives and state agency officials that the governor may designate

In contrast, the Skills Act requires thattwo-thirds of board members be representatives of the business community”  and “eliminates requirement that local board include representatives from local educational entities, labor organizations, community-based organizations, economic development agencies, and one-stop partners.” It maintains “the governor, chief elected officials, a state agency official responsible for economic development and other such representatives as the governor should designate to serve on the board.”

The Senate bill, however, revises current law for State Board membership as follows: majority of representatives must be employers or representatives of business or trade associations; at least 20% must be representatives of labor and CBOs or youth serving organizations, and adds representatives of a joint labor-management program or apprenticeship program as a required partner.

Judy Lawton, CEO of The Lawton Group, past president of the San Diego Workforce Investment Board and current chair of the Adult Programs Committee, provided me with the following comments regarding the Skills Act: “The San Diego Workforce Partnership completed their Five (5) Year Plan more than a year ago and rolled it out to the public shortly thereafter. It is very comprehensive, well thought out, and definitely streamlines practices and procedures and strategic thinking along the lines of programs and program delivery methods. At our last Adult Programs Committee meeting, we recommended apprenticeship programs to the full Workforce Investment Board through the collaborative efforts of local union leaders, business leaders, educators, and skills trainers. As for the boards being comprised of 2/3rd business people, I'm not so sure. The WIB is already mandated by law to have 51% business and that community is well represented. The unions belong at the table as they are becoming more involved with the necessary apprenticeship programs, and their presence is welcomed.”

The current law requires a unified state plan that is based on a five-year strategy, while the Skills Act requires a three-year plan, and the Senate bill requires a four-year plan.

Both the Skills Act and the Senate bill maintain the current law with regard to the establishment of the One-Stop Delivery System for services and the delivery of services, but have different plans than the current law for infrastructure funding.

A major difference of the Skills Act compared to current law and the Senate bill is that it repeals the Youth Activities section of the current Workforce Investment Act. It also repeals:

  • Native American programs
  • Migrant and seasonal farm worker programs
  • Veterans’ workforce investment programs
  • Youth opportunity grant program

The National Skills Coalition sent a letter on March 4, 2013 to the Committee on Education and the Workforce Committee of the House of Representatives expressing their grave concerns about eliminating the above programs and explained their additional reasons for opposing the passage of the SKILLS Act. The other reasons for their opposition are too complex for me to attempt to summarize. As usual, the “devil is in the details,” so I highly recommend that readers check out the links to the report and letter that are herein provided.

San Diego Workforce Partnership President Peter Callstrom provided me with the following words of caution: “The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) is long overdue for reauthorization. There are competing visions with respect to how to best go forward: reauthorize as is, or reconstruct through the 'Skills Act' - or some combination of both. The WIA works well and thousands of individuals have, and continue to be, supported in their careers. Where, and how, we go from here is important. In the end, we all want local control in order to address our unique needs. As the local Workforce Investment Board (WIB), we welcome any solution that results in more resources for Our region led by Our residents to support Our workforce. Let’s hope that politics doesn’t get in the way of that.”

Well said, Peter.

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