After an election focused heavily on jobs, the House is poised to move quickly on a long-stalled overhaul of federal job-training programs. But hope for finally breaking through the gridlock appears to hinge on bipartisan negotiations quietly under way in the Senate.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the 1998 Workforce Investment Act, which expired in 2003, needs updating. Pressure to reauthorize the law mounted after a 2011 Government Accountability Office analysis found that many of the 47 federal job-training programs overlap in some way.
“The U.S. government job-training programs are a little bit of a mess,” said Aspen Gorry, a labor research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “There are nine agencies and many, many overlapping programs. But I’m less concerned that there are many different programs than I am that it’s uncoordinated through many different agencies.”
That problem, he said, is complicated by the fact that little is known about the effectiveness of government job-training programs, because they often aren’t structured in a way that allows policymakers to track data. Typically the only thing that is tracked is whether a participant enters the workforce.
“That won’t give you a good scientific way to tell you whether the program is effective or not,” Gorry said. “If you got trained in ‘X’ task, did you get a job in ‘X’ task? Or did you just re-enter the labor force?”
Committees in both chambers began work on the legislation during the 112th Congress, and now the same cast of characters is again picking up the effort.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee is moving toward passage this month of a Republican proposal that will likely renew the partisan standoff that bogged down the issue in the previous Congress. At the same time, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., are negotiating behind the scenes on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
House Favors State Block Grant
In the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has cited the job-training legislation as a top priority several times since the November elections.
“Federal job-training programs ought to make it easier for Americans who are out of work or who are changing careers to get the skills they need,” Cantor said Tuesday in a speech outlining his agenda. “Yet today, the federal government has a patchwork of over 47 different overlapping programs that are not dynamic or innovative enough to meet the needs of employers or potential employees. We can fix this, and we should be able to muster bipartisan support to do so.”
Republicans on the Education and the Workforce Committee are slated to introduce a bill to overhaul job-training programs in the coming weeks that will largely mirror the measure they pushed through the panel on a party-line vote last year, according to a committee spokeswoman.
That bill proposed consolidating 27 job-training programs into one large block grant to the states and would have allowed governors to merge additional programs if they had a “responsible” plan to do so. It would have required states to adopt a common set of performance measures to judge the success of all programs. And it would have required that two-thirds of the members of each local workforce board be employers, to help ensure that job training meets the needs of businesses.
Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., has been emphatic that the programs should be cut and streamlined. “In our bill in the last Congress, we were trying to get rid of a lot of redundancy,” Kline said. “We said we need to clean this up and make it easier.”
Committee Democrats opposed the GOP bill and will likely do so again. “That didn’t go over well,” ranking member George Miller, D-Calif., said. “Maybe they will continue their actions of the past, but that would be unfortunate.”
Democrats argue that consolidating programs into a block grant would shift money away from underserved populations, such as veterans or the homeless, that some of the training efforts were set up to help.
“There is some effort to narrow the stakeholders who can be involved,” Miller said. “That makes no sense. In their efforts to streamline it, I feel that they’re removing some accountability for difficult populations that may need different assistance.”
An alternative proposal he offered last year would enable local governments to contract with community colleges to train workers in sought-after skills, a priority for the Obama administration.
The Republican bill never reached the full House, but Kline is optimistic about its prospects now. “Where we set the table in the last Congress, I would expect us to go there and see if we can move really early,” he said. “We’ve done an awful lot of work and I think we can take advantage of it.”
Senators Seek National System
While such a partisan proposal stands little chance in the Senate, Murray and Isakson have renewed their efforts to write a bipartisan bill. They drafted a rewrite of the law during the previous Congress with HELP Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and then-ranking member Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo. They said they will use that proposal as a launching pad and have already begun working to finalize it.
“We just need to work out a couple of more things and hopefully we can move it quickly,” Harkin said. “Just two or three things remain an issue, but nothing that we can’t work out.”
The earlier Senate proposal put in place a national job-training system and eliminated the piecemeal, state-by-state programs that currently exist. It also created an “innovation fund” to spur states to form partnerships with business and education groups to train workers for the jobs in greatest demand.
The measure, on which a committee markup was postponed at least three times, was never formally introduced. Momentum petered out when the negotiators came to an impasse over, among other minor issues, the makeup of the local workforce boards. Those issues have yet to be resolved, and according to a committee staffer, Murray and Isakson haven’t decided whether to include the innovation fund that was part of their previous draft.
The overarching goal, the staffer said, is to orient the entire workforce-training system around regional economic development and to give businesses a better stake in the system with more targeted outcomes while helping employees obtain skills for a career, not just the next job.
“We’ve got programs in my state of Georgia ... where adult and technical education schools will guarantee employers trained employees if they move to the state of Georgia,” Isakson said. “We’ll be focusing on things like that. We’re going to try and take best practices from the Department of Labor and educational institutions ... all over the country and try to put them in place.”
Gorry said incentive-based programs are a good start. He also applauded the efforts of both chambers to better align the workforce-training programs with the needs of businesses.
“Maybe I’m being a bit skeptical about general training programs, but for programs to work, the government has to be good at providing the training that’s needed,” Gorry said. “A lot of training programs are in those middle-manufacturing-type skills that there aren’t jobs for. For government training to be effective, they need to provide training for the jobs that are out there.”