The Most Influential Jobs Bill You’ve Never Heard Of

Could an overhaul of the Workforce Investment Act be a key to solving unemployment?

OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 05: Job seeker Maurice Jones looks through job listings at Eastbay Works Oakland One-Stop Career Center August 5, 2010 in Oakland, California. U.S. jobless claims unexpectedly rose by 19,000 new claims for the week ending on July 31. 
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Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
May 15, 2014, 5:01 p.m.

It’s the most in­flu­en­tial jobs bill you’ve nev­er heard of, and this sum­mer it might be up­dated for the first time in 14 years.

When the Work­force In­vest­ment Act was signed by Pres­id­ent Clin­ton in 1998, the idea was to con­sol­id­ate what had typ­ic­ally been sep­ar­ate state of­fices — the un­em­ploy­ment of­fice, the job-list­ings of­fice, the train­ing-ser­vices of­fice, some­times even the wel­fare of­fice — in­to One-Stop Ca­reer Cen­ters, in or­der to help more Amer­ic­ans con­nect with em­ploy­ers’ needs. But Con­gress has ig­nored the law since it went in­to ef­fect in 2000, and law­makers and ad­voc­ates say it badly needs a face-lift. Its fo­cus on short-term train­ing and rap­id ree­m­ploy­ment for laid-off work­ers is out­dated, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Skills Co­ali­tion, a job-train­ing ad­vocacy group.

The act grew out of a de­bate in the mid-1990s. After Clin­ton signed the wel­fare-re­form law that for the first time linked wel­fare be­ne­fits to jobs and train­ing, poli­cy­makers turned a crit­ic­al eye to­ward ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ment train­ing pro­grams and found them dis­con­nec­ted from the job mar­ket. The Work­force In­vest­ment Act sought to get busi­nesses more in­volved in the sys­tem. It also im­posed re­port­ing re­quire­ments on the One-Stop Ca­reer Cen­ters, man­dat­ing that they track em­ploy­ment out­comes for the people they served — but not wheth­er those re­ceiv­ing job train­ing were also tak­ing col­lege classes or pur­su­ing a cer­ti­fic­ate, for ex­ample. Thus, it pri­or­it­ized im­me­di­ate em­ploy­ment over in­vest­ments in long-term job-read­i­ness.

Con­gres­sion­al staffers say that the law’s em­phas­is on em­ploy­ment out­comes also para­dox­ic­ally made it harder for the One-Stop Ca­reer Cen­ters to provide ser­vices to the very people it was in­ten­ded to help, such as low-in­come youth, or adults who need re­medi­al school­work or help with child care. Dir­ect­ing a self-suf­fi­cient cli­ent to a job-list­ing kiosk, avail­able at all One-Stops is, after all, a more ef­fi­cient route to suc­cess than provid­ing in­di­vidu­al at­ten­tion or in­tens­ive job train­ing to a cli­ent who is es­pe­cially hard to em­ploy.

Law­makers want to clear up these prob­lems. Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats in both the House and the Sen­ate want the new Work­force In­vest­ment Act to en­cour­age every One-Stop Ca­reer Cen­ter to of­fer more types of train­ing to more cli­ents. What’s more, both the House and Sen­ate bills say cli­ents should be get­ting some sort of de­gree or cer­ti­fic­ate, and that it’s OK if that pro­cess takes a few years. Un­der the pro­posed changes, that wouldn’t count against a One-Stop’s year-end tally of cli­ents and their em­ploy­ment out­comes.

There are dis­agree­ments between the two cham­bers. The House passed its ver­sion of the le­gis­la­tion last year along party lines, with only two Demo­crats vot­ing in fa­vor of it; Demo­crats say Re­pub­lic­ans gut­ted the law. A more bi­par­tis­an ef­fort passed the Sen­ate Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee last sum­mer on an 18-3 vote. While the House bill com­bines 35 dif­fer­ent job-train­ing pro­grams in­to one and gives states money in the form of block grants, the Sen­ate ver­sion re­tains most of the ori­gin­al law’s pro­grams, con­sol­id­at­ing only five.

At first glance, dif­fer­ences seem ir­re­con­cil­able, but aides say the ne­go­ti­at­ors, in­clud­ing Sen. Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., are ac­tu­ally pretty close on many thorny is­sues. They all ac­know­ledge that some of the cur­rent law’s 47 sep­ar­ate pro­grams will have to go. Many of the pro­grams are tailored to serve spe­cif­ic pop­u­la­tions — youth, laid-off work­ers, dis­abled job seekers, vet­er­ans — but the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice says they are overly du­plic­at­ive. The fi­nal deal won’t con­sol­id­ate all the pro­grams in­to to a single block grant, but the two sides can meet in the middle, aides say.

If ne­go­ti­at­ors are able to reach a deal in the next sev­er­al weeks, their com­prom­ise could be on the Sen­ate floor some­time this sum­mer. With House mem­bers in­volved in the talks now, that agree­ment should, in the­ory, eas­ily pass the House.

It’s a tall or­der, but it’s not im­possible. Mur­ray has been work­ing on the bill and re­lated is­sues for years. Re­pub­lic­ans lately have been talk­ing about the need to up­date job-train­ing pro­grams. In Janu­ary, one of the ne­go­ti­at­ors, Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der, R-Tenn., said the Sen­ate should vote on a job-train­ing bill dur­ing the de­bate on un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits. House Speak­er John Boehner touted the House-passed job-train­ing bill last month in a weekly ra­dio ad­dress, chas­tising the Sen­ate for not tak­ing up the is­sue.

The ne­go­ti­at­ors are hop­ing to provide law­makers with something to vote on to back up their pub­lic state­ments. But it has to be just the right bill. Demo­crats will run in­to prob­lems if they go too far in curb­ing the in­di­vidu­al pro­grams. Ad­vocacy groups will not eas­ily let go of money set aside for spe­cif­ic groups of job-seekers, es­pe­cially when they don’t trust that the states will serve those people on their own.

The House bill is “totally un­ac­cept­able,” says Chan­elle Hardy, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Urb­an League’s Wash­ing­ton bur­eau. The Urb­an League sup­ports the Sen­ate ef­fort be­cause it dir­ects fed­er­al dol­lars to pro­grams that help young people who have dropped out of high school, or have been in­volved in the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem, get trained and find jobs.

That lan­guage isn’t in the House bill, which makes the le­gis­la­tion a non­starter for the Urb­an League. “A single work­force in­vest­ment fund block grant would totally un­der­mine and dis­mantle our na­tion’s work­force-de­vel­op­ment sys­tem’s re­sponse to the very pop­u­la­tion of adults and youth most in need of its ser­vices,” Hardy says.

Strong state­ments like that are go­ing to have to be tempered for a new law to make it to Pres­id­ent Obama’s desk. But if Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats could agree on a budget, maybe they can do this too.

This art­icle is part of The Next Amer­ica pro­ject. 

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