The Jobs Program We Need

The Jobs Program We Need

There is some good news out of Washington: Bipartisan agreement has emerged on a major piece of legislation. The bad news: Congress missed a rare opportunity to demonstrate that it -- and our entire political system -- could achieve bipartisanship by combining the insights of both sides.

Shortly before the July 4 recess, the Senate passed the "Workforce Investment and Opportunities Act" -- a reauthorization of the 1998 federal Workforce Investment Act, the nation's major "jobs" law, which expired a decade ago and since then simply has been funded through the annual appropriations process. The House followed suit last week, and the measure is expected to become law. Unfortunately, the reauthorization is basically a continuation of what we've been doing for the last 25 years. Instead, we should be building on a quarter-century of experience in how to do better.

Workforce development is vital to our nation's future as global competition rises. Within the decade, roughly two-thirds of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training. When originally enacted, WIA was an innovative and bipartisan breakthrough that recognized this growing importance of advanced skill training and education. But that was in 1998, and since then reauthorization and reform have been held up by partisan differences: In simple terms, Democrats wanted more programs and Republicans wanted fewer.

Our involvement in workforce innovations in the states -- which actually administer the WIA-authorized programs -- tells us that Republicans are right: The current system is too program-heavy and centrally dictated by Washington. The Government Accountability Office has identified 47 federal employment and training programs administered by different agencies. This maze of programs and requirements is costly and inefficient.

But Democrats are also correct: New initiatives are needed to improve coordination among businesses, the government, and the country's various education systems, and to address the reality of global competition.

Instead of stasis, we need progress -- in this case, making federal workforce programs both more streamlined and more flexible, while at the same time more proactive in addressing the needs of businesses and workers. With Congress taking a pass, that opportunity -- and responsibility -- now falls to the states (which the Obama administration could aid by granting waivers). Here are five simple steps they should take:

  1. Create a more flexible, integrated, and comprehensive system. With the current web of programs, funding streams for specific purposes and populations, and arduous requirements, state and local governments cannot tailor their programs to their own needs and capabilities. We should unify funding streams to create a comprehensive school-to-career pipeline, letting states and localities experiment and develop what works best for them.

  2. Integrate workforce-development initiatives into broader efforts to improve the economy. Workforce development needs to be part of a cohesive strategy, not a side effort. Workforce development, education, investment, trade, technology, and macroeconomic policies all need to be aligned to support economic development activities and goals. A more skilled workforce is itself a vehicle of economic advancement, not just a tool for business recruitment. The most successful states make workforce programs part of their economic development agencies; more substantively, policies themselves must be integrated: If a state has developed a sector strategy to promote aerospace or advanced manufacturing, it shouldn’t have a workforce strategy targeted to preparing workers for retail trade or hotel management.

  3. Focus on demand: what local employers need now and what they expect to need in the future. Government programs too often train too many people for too few jobs, and not enough people in fields where they're really needed. That's why greater business input is needed. But the outmoded WIA-funded workforce boards, composed largely of local business leaders, resulted in meetings few attend instead of the broad-based input originally intended. New technologies can replace face-to-face meetings to greatly facilitate data collection and analysis, such as a pioneering "skills bank" approach that relies on a small group of employers in a particular industry to help pinpoint job descriptions and skill requirements, while computers analyze the results, match the skills standards with job seekers, and determine gaps in training and education.

  4. Broaden the system's focus and client base. The workforce-development system is conceived in most places as an adjunct to the welfare system, with priority on placing the low-skilled unemployed in the first low-wage or temporary job possible. Instead the goal should be true investment: The system should help Americans migrate up the educational-attainment scale so they can move up the wage scale -- from efforts targeted to the special needs of today's long-term unemployed and entry-level programs for low-skilled workers, to "quick-start" programs providing customized training for relocating firms and lifelong learning for incumbent workers through post-secondary institutions and on-the-job opportunities.

  5. Connect education to workforce needs. We need to integrate our now-separate workforce and education systems -- community college, higher education, and K-12 -- to offer continual opportunities for career advancement. Postsecondary schools, from community colleges and technical programs to state universities, need to work together not only to prepare students but also to make sure every graduate has the "soft skills" necessary to function well in the 21st-century workplace. Too often, higher-ed institutions consider themselves above mere workforce preparation while K-12 education is divorced from eventual real-world application. All students at all levels should be able to graduate with the skills they need to find a job that supports their families. That will require not abandoning the broader goals of education, but relating what students learn to the job demands most will eventually face -- and getting all segments of our education system to recognize that they must inter-relate on everything from curriculum and credit-granting to teacher preparation and career counseling.

One governor once told us that WIA's constraints ranked as governors' No. 1 complaint about the federal government, while another's chief-of-staff confided that WIA seemed the dullest subject in government -- fit only for "green-eyeshade types." With its current Rube Goldberg structure of funding streams and reporting requirements, this may be true -- but it shouldn't be. With a world-class workforce-development system, Americans could have higher-paying jobs, the world's cutting-edge industries could all cluster here, and crime and dependency could decrease. Simply put, there is nothing better we could do for our country than to start making our workforce-development system work for the 21st century.

Eric B. Schnurer is president of, and Daniela Glick is a senior analyst with, Public Works LLC, a consulting firm advising governments on a range of public-policy issues. They have worked with administrations in a dozen states on workforce-development reforms.

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