Somewhat Leaner and Meaner

May 22, 2014

WASHINGTON -- After years of failed attempts, the U.S. Congress has reached a bipartisan deal to replace the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which oversees a hodgepodge of more than $3 billion in federal job-training programs.

The proposed legislation drew praise from community colleges and others in higher education, as well as from think tanks and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The 811-page bill would eliminate red tape and redundancy, they said, while also creating standardized performance metrics and emphasizing better links between K-12, higher education and employers.

Yet experts said the language sticks to the general gist of the current law, which Congress first passed in 1998 and has failed to renew for more than a decade. There are relatively few major additions. And some of the changes are less dramatic than they appear.

WIA is aimed at displaced workers, high school dropouts, adults with few job skills and people with disabilities. It was designed in part to bring businesses together with local work force boards, on which community college officials serve.

A good portion of the funding flows to community colleges and for-profit institutions.

States receive and distribute the money, which is the largest federal investment in job training. For example, this year WIA funds more than $1.2 billion in U.S. Labor Department-run programs for dislocated workers.

However, White House and Congressional Republicans have lambasted WIA's tangled “maze” of almost 50 programs, which nine federal agencies administer.

“Our legislation will simplify that maze, give governors and states more flexibility and make it easier for Tennessee's 13 local work force investment boards to match job seekers with the skills employers are looking for,” Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pension’s Committee, said in a written statement. Alexander's panel released the compromise language on Wednesday.

The legislation would eliminate 15 of the WIA’s somewhat duplicative programs. Yet the federal government currently isn’t funding those programs.

Even so, the likely passage of any broad legislation is rare these days in Washington. And the Democrat-controlled Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, which Republicans control, previously have proposed widely divergent WIA overhauls.

Observers said Republicans may have come back to the table with more urgency in part because of the push by Democrats to increase the minimum wage. Congressional Republicans also wanted to appear to be doing something to help lower-income workers, according to that line of thinking.

The negotiations largely occurred behind closed doors during the last few months. Both the House and Senate will consider the bill sometime soon.

David Baime, the senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges, said he was thrilled by the WIA deal.

“It’s something we’ve been working on for years,” he said.

Boost for Data, Funding?

Advocates for community college got some of what they wanted in the proposed bill. One key win for the sector was for two-year colleges to keep a slot on local work force development boards. (Congressional Republicans had sought to eliminate that role in a recent bill.)

Baime said the broader focus on career pathways and regional planning will benefit higher education. And Jee Hang Lee, vice president for public policy and external relations at the Association of Community College Trustees, praised what he said was an emphasis on the earning of college credentials in the bill.

They also said the legislation eliminates some red tape and makes it easier for students to enter directly into training programs.

However, the bill featured some disappointments for the sector. Community colleges had pushed hard for an individual WIA program that would focus exclusively on the two-year sector. That language was not included.

The New America Foundation joined community colleges in praising the career pathways emphasis in the bill. That approach is about a more holistic linkage of education and work force development, which would make it easier for students to finish school and get a good job.

The legislation could also help address gender imbalances in more technical job fields. Research has shown that men tend to get most of the jobs that require certificates in computing or heating and air-conditioning technology. WIA tends to reinforce "occupational segregation," according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW). But the new bill is an improvement.

"Women earn just 74.6 percent of what men make after receiving WIA-funded services," Lisa M. Maatz, the AAUW's vice president of government relations, said in a written statement. "The bipartisan WIA draft would require the Department of Labor to study this very issue, with the goal of placing more women in high-wage, high-demand jobs that are traditionally held by men."

Improved data collection also got several shout-outs. The bill would create a new, more standardized accountability system, according to the Workforce Data Quality Campaign, which is an offshoot of the National Skills Coalition, a nonprofit group.

Rachel Zinn, the campaign’s director, said in a blog post that the legislation requires that the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education work with states on performance reports about the job-training programs. She said the reporting will feature common metrics on employment, median earnings, credentials earned, measurable skill gains and employer engagement.

“These required performance reports are an important step toward giving students, workers and policymakers the information they need to make informed choices,” Zinn wrote.

The new legislation would set authorized funding levels for each of the next five years. That’s a shift from how the current WIA law works. The change, as well as the boost a reauthorization typically gives, could help the job-training programs in future budget fights.

Baime said he hopes the new bill “reinvigorates prospects for funding.”

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