Congress may soon do a remarkable thing — pass a significant, non-urgent bill on a bipartisan basis. We can’t be sure, of course. But advocates are justifiably hopeful.
The bill I’m referring to would reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act — the single largest source of federal funds for a broad range of programs and services that help people prepare for and find work. Or looked at another way, that provide employers with workers whose skills match their needs.
WIA hasn’t been reauthorized since it was created in 1998. Needless to say, the labor market has changed since then, as have the needs of people who want to enter it, re-enter it or move up from dead-end, low-wage jobs.
That’s not all that’s changed. State and local agencies have gained experience — not altogether happy — with the administrative complexities the current law imposes.
And experts have noted some perverse incentives, created partly — but not entirely — but funding cuts that predate the Budget Control Act caps and across-the-board cuts. Those, of course, have only made matters worse.
Most importantly perhaps, thinking about how workforce development programs should be structured has evolved. So have views on how public agencies and their contractors should be held accountable — and for what.
All of which brings us to the proposed Workforce Opportunity and Investment Act — proclaimed by key Republicans and Democrats both as a “bicameral, bipartisan … deal to improve the nation’s workforce development system.”
Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Last year, House Republicans crafted — and with scant help from Democrats, passed — a bill that would have eliminated 35 WIA programs and effectively rolled the rest into a block grant, with funds frozen for seven years at the Fiscal Year 2014 level.
The effect, as the White House said, would have been to shortchange the needs of “vulnerable populations” who face “significant barriers to employment.”
So one of the best things we can say about the new bill is that the block grant is dead. The basic WIA structure remains the same, ensuring that each top-level component — job training, employment services, adult basic education and vocational rehabilitation for people with disabilities — gets funding.
At the same time — and here’s where things get interesting — states must develop a single, comprehensive plan for all “core” programs for both eligible youth and adults, including those with disabilities and those who are “dislocated,” e.g., have been laid off or soon will be.
Local Workforce Investments Boards — also sometimes known as Workforce Investment Councils — must then develop plans that align with what their state has produced.
What we see here isn’t just administrative streamlining. The unified plan requirement will tend to break down silos, e.g., between the agency that administers the one-stop employment services centers and the agency that administers adult education.
Beyond this, the bill establishes a clear preference for a career pathway approach to workforce development.
Basically, this approach involves a continuous, interlocking series of programs and services that enable participants to move from wherever they are to successively higher levels of education and employment in a particular industry or occupation that offers significant opportunities in the area where they live.
Services here may include various “needs-related payments” that enable recipients to get — and stay — on their pathways, e.g., transportation subsidies, child care. Also included are diverse hands-on work experiences, paid as well as unpaid.
More generally, the bill eliminates the current sequence of services for adults — an approach that reserves “intensive services” like job counseling for those who haven’t gotten jobs through basic, limited services and training only for those who are still unemployed, despite the intensive services.
The bill requires not only a single, unified plan, but a single set of accountability measures for all core programs serving adults and another set for youth-specific programs.
For adults, this will mean tracking participants according to various success measures. How many secure — and retain — unsubsidized employment, for example, plus their earnings. How many gain additional credentials and/or marketable skills.
Somewhat similar measures for disadvantaged youth — a category that will be broadened to include young adults up to 25 years old.
And, very importantly, results for subpopulations must be reported separately, including each group the bill defines as having a barrier (or barriers) to employment, e.g. homeless people, recipients of major safety net benefits, ex-offenders, single parents, individuals with disabilities.
This is one, though not the only way that the bill seeks to ensure sufficient attention to people for whom a job listing and perhaps some short-shot training won’t be enough for them to gain employment — let alone prospects for advancement.
Well, there’s a lot more in the bill — all 811 pages of it. And a lot of it, including what I’ve tried to summarize is very complex. So I’ll note just one other feature.
WIA authorizes Congress to spend “such sums as are necessary” — in other words, however much (or little) it chooses in any given year. Mostly how little. Funding, in real dollars, was more than 30% lower last year than in 2002.
The Workforce Opportunity and Investment Act specifies authorized, i.e., permissible, funding levels for each major component and for each of the six years it covers. These would generally bring funding back to Fiscal Year 2010 levels by Fiscal Year 2017, according to a National Skills Coalition brief.
But, as NSC also says, it’s very unlikely that programs will be funded at the authorized levels if Congress lets the caps and related cuts continue as currently mandated.
So a bipartisan, bicameral bill that’s a whole lot better than what we’ve got now, but not enough money to appropriately serve the many millions who could benefit — unless Congress does something even more remarkable.