Employers’ Role in State Job-Training Programs Will Grow

In a rare bipartisan victory, the Senate just overwhelmingly approved a new approach to workforce investment for new economic times.

Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., talk to reporters before the Senate vote on the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act, a job training law. The bill passed 
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
June 25, 2014, 1:21 p.m.

It’s a small change, but one that could greatly in­crease the in­flu­ence of busi­nesses with their loc­al gov­ern­ments when it comes to job cre­ation. A job-train­ing bill that passed the Sen­ate on Wed­nes­day, 95-3, sig­ni­fic­antly bol­sters em­ploy­ers’ voices on loc­al com­mit­tees that de­term­ine what types of job-train­ing pro­grams re­ceive fed­er­al dol­lars. It does that primar­ily by shrink­ing these com­mit­tees to less than half their cur­rent size.

Gone are the cur­rently re­quired slots for labor of­fi­cials, state le­gis­lature mem­bers, and rep­res­ent­at­ives of “eco­nom­ic agen­cies.” In their place, the le­gis­la­tion des­ig­nates spots for com­munity-based or­gan­iz­a­tions, joint labor-man­age­ment pro­grams, and em­ploy­ment agen­cies. It also al­lows for a lot of flex­ib­il­ity. One board might have a com­munity-cen­ter lead­er as a mem­ber, and an­oth­er might have a loc­al uni­on of­fi­cial in the same spot. Even the gov­ernor’s mem­ber­ship is op­tion­al.

The most im­port­ant thing about these Work­force In­vest­ment Boards is that they must be made up of a ma­jor­ity of busi­ness lead­ers. That’s no dif­fer­ent from the cur­rent law, but the trimmed-down boards mean that the em­ploy­er rep­res­ent­at­ives might ac­tu­ally get to use their mem­ber­ship for something oth­er than com­munity ser­vice. Right now, some board mem­bers com­plain that they do noth­ing but at­tend meet­ings. The boards are so bloated that they are “un­wieldy and can’t work,” ac­cord­ing to Sen. Johnny Isak­son, R-Ga., a chief spon­sor of the bill.

The meas­ure is an im­press­ive over­haul of bur­eau­crat­ic red tape that may help en­sure that people who need help trans­ition­ing in­to a 21st-cen­tury work­force are train­ing for jobs that em­ploy­ers ac­tu­ally need. It has be­nefited from wide bi­par­tis­an sup­port, with Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats alike agree­ing that get­ting more people in­to the skilled jobs is the most im­port­ant factor in the coun­try’s eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment. Do­ing so re­duces un­em­ploy­ment and gives busi­nesses work­ers with spe­cif­ic skill sets. 

The bill up­dates the 1998 Work­force In­vest­ment Act, which has been ig­nored al­most since its birth. It set up loc­al “one-stop cen­ters” where job seekers can find all of the gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ment sup­ports — job list­ings, train­ing op­tions, and un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance — in one loc­a­tion. The ori­gin­al meas­ure was signed by Pres­id­ent Clin­ton. But it was Pres­id­ent Bush’s ad­min­is­tra­tion that was re­spons­ible for im­ple­ment­ing it, and that was nev­er a high pri­or­ity. By 2008, the eco­nomy had changed so much since the In­ter­net boom in which the law was ori­gin­ally passed that the stat­ute was a near-ana­chron­ism. 

With Sen­ate pas­sage, House lead­ers are ex­pec­ted to fol­low suit shortly. Pres­id­ent Obama has in­dic­ated he will sign the bill.

Once the over­haul be­comes law, the Work­force In­vest­ment Act will be a trimmed-down, more busi­ness-ori­ented ver­sion of the ori­gin­al. It in­cludes new, uni­ver­sal per­form­ance met­rics that will al­low gov­ernors to de­term­ine what’s work­ing and what isn’t. Some train­ing pro­grams will get ex­tra money for demon­strat­ing suc­cess — i.e., that their cli­ents are gain­fully em­ployed after a year or two.

The re­write is a product of in­tense talks over the last sev­er­al months among the chief edu­ca­tion gurus on Cap­it­ol Hill. Sen. Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., has been work­ing on an over­haul for years, but her pre­vi­ous ver­sions have done noth­ing but gath­er dust. Earli­er this year, she was presen­ted with a nar­row op­por­tun­ity to ac­tu­ally pass something (a rar­ity in the Sen­ate these days) when Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id told Demo­crat­ic spon­sors that he would give the bill floor time in the sum­mer if they could come to an agree­ment with Re­pub­lic­ans on le­gis­la­tion that would also pass the House. Re­id’s goal was that the bill would pass on the Sen­ate floor by “un­an­im­ous con­sent” — without op­pos­i­tion.

“In the middle of the night, by U.C., that’s what we’re hop­ing for,” Mur­ray joked as law­makers were near­ing agree­ment. (It didn’t quite hap­pen that way, but it was close. The de­bate star­ted at noon and fi­nal pas­sage oc­curred around 3:30 p.m.)

Con­veni­ently, Isak­son’s of­fice is right next to Mur­ray’s in the Rus­sell Sen­ate Of­fice Build­ing. He and Mur­ray spent hours hash­ing out the bill’s de­tails and then tak­ing their product to their re­spect­ive parties. Their House coun­ter­parts were in on every con­ver­sa­tion, in keep­ing with Re­id’s re­quest.

The House Re­pub­lic­an job-train­ing bill that passed last year drew loud protests from Demo­crats be­cause it would have con­sol­id­ated most of the cur­rent train­ing pro­grams in­to a state block grant. There was no chance of that bill com­ing to the Sen­ate floor, even though it ac­cur­ately re­flec­ted the pref­er­ences of most Re­pub­lic­ans. Still, House Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Kline, R-Minn., in­dic­ated he was open to less drastic changes.

With Re­id’s dead­line in mind, these parties even­tu­ally came to a com­prom­ise. They cut 15 pro­grams in­stead of the 35 ori­gin­ally re­ques­ted by House Re­pub­lic­ans. The state work­force boards shrank from 61 re­quired mem­bers to 33. The loc­al boards went from 51 mem­bers to 19. Youth coun­cils, a con­fus­ing sub­set of the loc­al boards, were elim­in­ated.

The “core in­dic­at­ors” that are sup­posed to sig­nal suc­cess of a train­ing pro­gram will be­come uni­ver­sal when the bill is signed in­to law. Cur­rently, there are dif­fer­ent out­come meas­ures for each type of train­ee. Suc­cess­ful aid to a laid-off work­er is defined dif­fer­ently than suc­cess­ful aid to a young poor per­son look­ing for his or her first job. The pa­per­work is over­whelm­ing. The data is a mess.

Not every­one is happy, even though law­makers from both parties ac­know­ledged the sig­ni­fic­ant ac­com­plish­ment in reach­ing a bi­par­tis­an agree­ment. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., lamen­ted on the Sen­ate floor that Job Corps, one of the law’s most ex­pens­ive train­ing pro­grams for young people, is largely un­touched.

Crit­ics say Job Corps doesn’t have a great track re­cord for its $1.7 bil­lion price tag. Many train­ees don’t com­plete the pro­gram, and many who do don’t find work in the field for which they were trained. House Re­pub­lic­ans pro­posed a ma­jor over­haul to Job Corps that would have capped the mon­et­ary al­lot­ment and re­quired all grantees to re­apply for fund­ing when their grants ran out. Yet those changes aren’t in the bill now.

“When you ask be­hind the scenes why we didn’t have ma­jor re­form to Job Corps, it’s be­cause of all the pa­ro­chi­al people they em­ploy,” Coburn said. “Most of the Job Corps pro­grams in Ok­lahoma are highly in­ef­fi­cient, fail­ing to do what we want them to do.”

But even Coburn un­der­stands that Job Corps is too im­port­ant polit­ic­ally for Demo­crats to make ma­jor changes. Isak­son said he spent a lot of time with Re­pub­lic­ans and his col­leagues in the states ex­plain­ing that his deal with Demo­crats had too many im­prove­ments over cur­rent law to hold up over the de­sire to do more.

“They asked me, ‘Did you get everything you wanted?’ No. Of course not. ‘Did you get enough?’ Well, we got plenty,” Isak­son said.

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