WASHINGTON – The Education and Labor Departments are often criticized  for either arguing with or ignoring one another rather than working together. But, with the economy in a fragile state, both departments are showing signs of a willingness to cooperate.
Representatives from the two departments assured a Senate subcommittee  Thursday that they would collaborate constructively on the reauthorization and reform of the Workforce Investment Act , legislation enacted under President Clinton to distribute federal training dollars for unemployed and displaced workers. Community colleges often use this money to fund their career and technical education programs. Also at the hearing, those charged with running these federally funded programs on the ground looked past the promises of the departments, telling the subcommittee they simply wanted results.
Earlier this week, President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors echoed the concerns  of many in the room by arguing that current federal policy toward workforce training often “discourages the creation of new, more effective” models because “basic skills and occupational training are funded under different streams, each with its own requirements and restrictions.” As a result, those localities with the resources to manage this mountain of federal paperwork have distinct advantages over those that do not know how to work the system.
Jane Oates, assistant secretary of labor for the Employment and Training Administration, said the current workforce investment system has been “stretched to the limit” and admitted some of its existing faults.
“In 1998, we wrote a bill that said local areas had to partner, and in doing that we didn’t model, at the federal level, by our own behavior,” Oates said of the often chilly relationship between the two departments. “One of the commitments I’m here to make today is that’s going to change. The Department of Education and the Department of Labor have already … had serious meetings together about how we move together not only in how do we create new ideas but how do we expand opportunities that exist now.”
For example, some states revoke unemployment insurance  for individuals who enroll in certain education or training programs, counting them as people no longer looking for jobs. Hoping to solve this problem, both departments issued a memorandum  in May calling on states to broaden their definitions to help those receiving unemployment insurance qualify for Pell Grants as well.
Oates said this kind of cooperation would be a hallmark of both departments’ future work on the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, arguing that skills and workforce training need not be mutually exclusive.
“Education and the credentials that have been associated with the education world – both industry-recognized credentials, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and beyond – are exactly where the workforce system should be leading,” Oates said. “We should be making sure that when people come to us for training they get a portable credential. … I think the reauthorization gives us the chance to articulate that more clearly.”
Martha Kanter, under secretary for the Department of Education, also spoke of collaboration. Chief among her suggestions: a call for both departments to “develop and integrate linked data systems” to track student progress and success through their respective programs.
“As we look toward reauthorization, we want to integrate all we do with Labor and the other agencies and think about the best impact we can have with states and localities so that education and employment outcomes are transparent and clear for those we serve,” Kanter said. “We’ve got to integrate adult basic education and workforce development more effectively.”
Sen. Barbara Murray – Democrat from Washington and chair of the Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions – further questioned both department representatives on what specifically they could do to avoid “fighting with each other” when reforming the Workforce Investment Act and its redundant requirements of local authorities.
“There are clear performance measures we could agree to,” said Oates, providing one specific example. “Far too many people at the local level are wasting their time answering one way for me at Labor, one way for Martha [Kanter] at Education and one way for Mary Wakefield at [Health Resources and Services Administration]. I think that’s a real problem. We can’t afford, in this economy or ever, to waste people’s time doing duplicative, redundant paperwork.”
Following testimony from the departments’ representatives, local workforce investment officials from around the country offered their own suggestions on potential reforms to the federal program. Recommendations ran the gamut from legislating equal representation on workforce investment boards for local business to ensuring that training programs be accessible to those with disabilities, but the desire for simplified reporting and pooling of federal funds was the theme most reiterated in the testimony of local officials.
“We realized that assessment means four different things to four different programs,” said Michael L. Thurmond, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Labor. “And so, you have to have a common language and then an overarching common goal, which is to help Americans get back to work. Some will require training and education and others can do it more directly, but understand the most important thing about this legislation that Senator Kennedy and others worked on originally was the fact that we were supposed to work more towards collaboration and integration. And collaboration is a big word, but it doesn’t mean anything until money changes hands out on the front line.”