Whither Work Force Training Bill?

House-passed legislation to renew Workforce Investment Act would consolidate programs and create mixed results for community colleges, but Democratic opposition probably dooms it.

March 18, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives approved legislation Friday that would consolidate the number of federal job training programs and make other changes in the government's system of work force training. But the measure, which would renew the law governing work force training for the first time in 15 years, is a highly partisan piece of legislation that has virtually no chance of being enacted in its current form.

The Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act (H.R. 803), crafted without significant Democratic involvement by the Republican majority of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, would eliminate dozens of small and often group-specific programs and consolidate the many streams of federal revenue that flow to those programs into a more centralized Workforce Investment Fund that states and local Workforce Investment Boards would have significantly latitude in allocating.

Supporters of the bill focused their discussion on the extent to which it will embrace President Obama's goal of streamlining the "maze" of job training and work force development programs spread throughout the federal government, as seen in an infographic released by the Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“Americans deserve a workforce development system that is more efficient, more accountable, and more responsive to the needs of our workplaces," said Rep. Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who heads the committee's Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education and Workforce Training. "This important legislation heeds the president’s call to cut through the maze of confusing and ineffective workforce development programs. We must ensure taxpayer dollars are supporting workers instead of unnecessary bureaucracy. I urge our Senate colleagues to put forward their own ideas and help move this process forward.”

The House passed the legislation by a vote of 215-202, largely along partisan lines. Democratic opposition to the bill -- including from the White House -- was driven mostly by concerns from the many groups who now have specific job-training programs that would be eliminated under the measure. "The bill would eliminate, or allow the consolidation of, many targeted programs, without providing the critical assistance needed by vulnerable populations such as veterans, low-income adults, youth, adults with literacy and English language needs, people with disabilities, ex-offenders, and others with significant barriers to employment," the White House said in a statement in which it expressed strong opposition.

House Democrats walked out of the mark-up last week at which the Education and the Workforce Committee approved the bill, objecting to what they termed "wholesale consolidation" of programs as well as to the non-collaborative way the legislation was drafted.

Officials at community colleges, which along with for-profit institutions are the major recipients of federal work force development funds within higher education, have mixed views on the House bill. The American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees, in a joint letter, praised the legislation for including a provision that would allow local work force boards to enter into contracts with postsecondary institutions to train groups of workers, and for eliminating from the legislation another provision that would have allowed governors to merge funds from the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Program with those from the Workforce Investment Act.

Another coalition of community colleges, known as Rebuilding America's Middle Class, praised House lawmakers for passing the bill, given that the measure has languished in Congress for nearly a decade. The group also applauded the measure's "renewed emphasis on job training by requiring minimum amounts of funding to be targeted toward training."

But the major associations of two-year colleges expressed concern about other aspects of the measure. One would eliminate a requirement that postsecondary institutions be represented on the local Workforce Investment Boards that decide how to allocate the funds that flow from the law, as part of an effort to contain the size of the boards. "We understand your desire to streamline the boards’ memberships, as our members have also complained of overly large WIBs," AACC and ACCT wrote to House Republican leaders. But "[a]s providers of occupational training, adult basic education, postsecondary education and other key services for WIA participants, we believe that community college WIB representation is vital to the system’s success and should be required in statute."

The groups also urged lawmakers to drop a proposed requirement that recipients of Workforce Investment Act funds report on the job placement and income outcomes of all students who complete their programs, not just those who receive federal work force funds.


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