A U.S. Training Upgrade

By Mark Jr.

Oct. 1, 2009

With partisan divides widening on health care reform and energy, most of the focus in Washington currently is on legislative battles.

But the Obama administration, Congress and the private sector actually do agree on something: U.S. workers need more education and training to fill jobs that increasingly demand higher-level skills. The House recently approved a bill that included funding for President Barack Obama’s plan to bolster community colleges, the American Graduation Initiative.

The $12 billion, 10-year program is designed to help the institutions improve their facilities and expand online education. The House measure would allocate $10 billion.

Obama asserted that an additional 5 million people would earn degrees and certificates from community colleges, a down payment on his effort to ensure that by 2020 the U.S. has the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. In a July 13 report, the White House Council of Economic Advisers projected that by 2016, occupations requiring an associate’s degree or advanced vocational training will grow twice as fast as jobs with fewer qualifications. Health care, education, transportation and construction will be the areas in highest demand.

If 5 million more people join the labor market with associate’s degrees, it could help transform notions of job training, according to Louis Soares, director of the economic mobility program at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

“That’s a material shift in how we view the workforce credential,” Soares says. The degree also falls in the “sweet spot” of one to two years of postsecondary education, which many employers require for hard-to-fill jobs.

Neither Congress nor employers have a good grasp of what the current system offers. “We understand very little of what we’re buying with [Workforce Investment Act] dollars.”
—Louis Soares,
director, economic mobility program, Center for American Progress

A recent Conference Board report, “The Ill-Prepared U.S. Workforce,” shows that nearly half of 217 employers surveyed provide remedial training to shore up employees’ writing, math and problem-solving deficiencies. The report was co-sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management, the American Society for Training & Development and Corporate Voices for Working Families.

Although there’s not yet a Senate bill that includes Obama’s community college plan, the idea may provide fresh thinking about the Workforce Investment Act, according to Soares.

For the last six years, Congress has failed to reauthorize the measure, which governs the federal training system. Programs continue to function, but they have not been reformed since the bill was enacted in 1998.

A variety of political problems have created the bottleneck—from concerns about faith-based organizations providing services to worries about consolidating funding streams and protecting union jobs at federal employment offices. Democratic leaders on the House and Senate labor committees voice optimism that the act will be reformed by the end of 2010.

In advance of the Workforce Investment Act’s reauthorization, the Department of Labor is planning improvements to federal “one-stop” employment offices. The agency is seeking to deliver more services online, emphasize “green jobs,” reach underserved minority populations and create career pathways rather than just provide one-off skills training. “They are steps along the path to a reformed WIA that hopefully Congress will pass in the next year,” says Deputy Labor Secretary Seth Harris.

One of the biggest problems with the current federal workforce system is that neither Congress nor employers have a good grasp of what it offers, according to Soares.

“Right now, we understand very little of what we’re buying with WIA [tax] dollars,” Soares said. Nearly every witness who has testified at Workforce Investment Act reauthorization hearings has stressed the importance of collaboration among government, educational institutions and employers in identifying skills needed in regional economies.

Workforce Investment Boards include seats for business representatives. But many corporations don’t participate. CVS/Caremark is an exception. The drugstore chain uses the federal system to fill jobs in its pharmacy and photo-processing departments, as well as other store positions. The company also has located its own training centers at one-stop facilities.

“It’s our national employment office,” says Steve Wing, CVS director of workforce initiatives. “We want to help get more companies involved.”

But reforming the Workforce Investment Act—or bolstering community colleges—doesn’t go far enough in the view of some experts.

Grant Aldonas, former undersecretary of commerce for international trade, is calling for a summit of business, labor and education experts to chart a national human capital strategy that would overhaul the nation’s approach to education and training. Aldonas is the author of a new book, Globalization and the American Worker: Negotiating a New Social Contract.

“If we’re going to succeed as a society, this is the investment we have to make,” he says.

Workforce Management, September 14, 2009, p. 30-33Subscribe Now!

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with