President Obama took steps to overhaul federal job training programs on Tuesday, announcing new executive actions and signing new workforce investment legislation.
The legislation reauthorizes a federal law that provides states and municipalities with money for job training. The new law, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, aims to streamline programs and eliminate redundancy. It also creates standardized performance metrics for evaluating how federal money is being spent.
Congress passed the legislation by a wide margin last month, and advocates for community colleges and other higher education groups support the measure.
Obama also announced that he would be acting on recommendations made by Vice President Biden’s six-month review of federal job training programs. Those executive actions, he said, will be aimed at improving the effectiveness of existing programs and demanding more results for such initiatives.
Since the State of the Union address earlier this year, the Obama administration has made a concerted push on job training and apprenticeship programs, which it has framed as crucial to bolstering the middle class. Community colleges have played a central role in that effort.
Both Obama and Biden continued their praise for two-year institutions at an event Tuesday to sign the workforce bill and announce new executive actions.
Obama said that the goal of his executive actions was to move away from federally supported programs in which workers “enroll, they get trained for something, they’re not even sure whether the job is out there, and if the job isn’t out there, all they’re doing is saddling themselves with debt, oftentimes putting themselves in a worse position.”
The administration said it would have federal agencies start making federal job programs satisfy a “job-driven checklist,” which calls for better coordination with employers to determine local hiring needs and greater use of data to help workers make informed decisions, among other things.
A second action will be to enforce a requirement that training programs using federal money make public how many of their graduates find jobs and how much they are paid. Such a requirement already exists in the federal workforce law, but the Department of Labor has in the past granted waivers for the requirement. The administration said Tuesday it would stop that practice.
“That means workers, as they’re shopping around for what’s available, they’ll know in advance if they can expect a good return on their investment,” Obama said.
The American Association of Community Colleges, which supported the reauthorization of the workforce legislation, said that it welcomed most of the new executive actions the administration announced Tuesday.
“We think over all it’s a positive document,” said James Hermes, the group’s associate vice president for government relations. “In essence it’s an encapsulation of the thinking that’s been out there about what these programs should be doing, but it’s always good to have it in one place.”
Still, Hermes said that community colleges did have some concerns about the requirement that they produce earnings and employment outcome data for all students in order to participate in federal workforce training programs.
“It’s not a question of them not wanting to be accountable,” he said. “It’s a question of them not getting the data in the first place."
Hermes said that community colleges may not have access, under state laws, to the databases they need to gather earnings and employment outcome information for students that complete their programs. But he said that the availability of such information is increasing.
Federal MOOC Platform?
The administration also announced as part of the job training executive actions that the U.S. Department of Labor planned to distribute a $25 million competitive grant to create an “Online Skills Academy.”
The department is seeking a platform that “offers open online courses of study, helping students earn credentials online through participating accredited institutions, and expand access to curriculum designed to speed the time to credit and completion.”
The program, according to a White House fact sheet, would build off the “burgeoning marketplace of free and open-licenses learning resources,” including existing materials that are already made available under federal workforce training programs in the department of labor’s online repository.
A Department of Labor spokesperson did not return a request for comment on the agency’s plans for the online academy.