11 Years Late, Key Job-Training Legislation Finally Heads Toward Passage

Getty Images

In a rare example of bipartisanship, members of Congress agreed to streamline programs in a bill to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act.
May 22, 2014

After many false starts, members of Congress have reached agreement on a bill to reauthorize federal job-training programs.

The compromise bill, which could come to the Senate floor as early as next week, would streamline the nation’s system for work-force development, ending 15 federally funded programs and shrinking state and local work-force-investment boards. It would also apply a standard set of outcome measures to evaluate all federal job-training programs.

In the 2012 fiscal year, the federal government sent more than $3-billion to states to support local and regional work-force programs.

If the bill clears both chambers of Congress, as expected, it would be the first time that Congress had renewed the Workforce Investment Act, or WIA, which was enacted in 1998. The measure was due for reauthorization in 2003, but efforts to renew it have never gotten through the Senate.

Effects on Community Colleges

Lobbyists for community colleges were generally happy with the deal, which would preserve a seat for two-year institutions on local work-force-investment boards and eliminate "sequence of service" rules that have forced some unemployed workers to seek jobs before enrolling in college programs.

The colleges are also pleased that the bill would allow local work-force boards to enter into contracts with community colleges to train students.

Under current law, community colleges can enroll WIA-based trainees through a voucher program. But colleges have complained that the program’s reporting requirements are unreasonable, and some have chosen not to participate. Contracts with the work-force boards would offer an alternative to vouchers and could provide better economies of scale, said David S. Baime, a lobbyist for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Still, colleges were frustrated that the bill would continue to require colleges that accept vouchers to report employment and earnings information for all of their students, and that it would not guarantee the institutions a seat on statewide work-force development boards.

Colleges were also disappointed that the bill would not include a program specifically for community colleges, said Jee Hang Lee, a lobbyist for the Association of Community College Trustees. Many had hoped lawmakers would continue, or replace, President Obama’s $2-billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Program, which expires soon.

Persistent ‘Silos’ Between Programs

The rare bipartisan agreement comes at a time when many Americans are growing frustrated with the sluggish economy and fluctuating job market. In a written statement, Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington and an author of the deal, called the bill a "prime example of what’s possible when Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate work together to write laws that help our economy grow."

"This bipartisan, bicameral legislation will bring federal worker programs into the 21st century," she said.

Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation who has overseen work-force programs in the Departments of Education and Labor, said the bill "definitely moves the system in the right direction—toward a stronger emphasis on career pathways, sector strategies, and integrated service delivery."

Still, she said, "there is a lot more work to be done," through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, to eliminate some of the "silos" that persist between job-training and education programs.

"There needs to be even more of a focus on the linkages with higher ed," she said. "The programs really need to be more hand-in-glove."

Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the Senate education committee, has said his panel plans to pass a bill for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act this spring.