Another of Obama’s Fundamental Changes: Training Policy

By Staff Report

May. 29, 2009

You need a scorecard to keep up with President Barack Obama’s plethora of priorities. On the domestic policy side, he has vowed to make sweeping changes in health care, energy and education.

An important subset of education–workforce training–tends to fly under the radar in Washington, but it will require more presidential and congressional leadership than it has received in a long time.

Obama appears set to provide guidance. On May 8, he announced that the Departments of Labor and Education would work with states and educational institutions to allow recently laid off workers to receive unemployment payments while they are enrolled in training programs and to have easier access to educational grants.

“The idea here is to fundamentally change our approach to unemployment in this country, so that it’s no longer just a time to look for a new job, but is also a time to prepare yourself for a better job,” Obama said.

Now Obama will have to follow through in an area that has languished from neglect in Washington.

The federal law that undergirds training programs, the Workforce Investment Act, has been up for renewal for nearly six years but has been stymied by a variety of policy and political issues. Congress is under way with another attempt.

Most experts and users of the system agree that it needs to be more flexible to respond to local labor market needs. Too many programs are run in silos and fail to communicate with one another.

Determining what kind of training is offered for what kind of jobs is a huge question that can elicit many different answers. The Obama administration wants to focus on so-called “green jobs.” The $787 billion stimulus package included $500 million for training in that area.

Republicans caution that federal training should be improved for all kinds of occupations and worry about artificial demand being created by government fiat.

Democrats also question whether job training priorities have been set correctly. Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, expressed concern at a May 12 hearing on the Department of Labor budget.

He noted that the stimulus bill included $250 million for training for health care industry jobs. But the administration’s budget request for the agency didn’t contain similar funding.

“If we’re serious about significant health care reform, we need to build the capacity of the system, and we’re falling short in this area,” Obey told Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

The thousands of jobs that Dollar General Corp. will have to fill over the next couple years aren’t necessarily “green.” But they could offer a path out of the recession for thousands of workers–if they are qualified.

As Dollar General Stores become more automated in tracking and managing inventory, employees have to be more fluent with technology, according to David Bere, president and chief strategy officer.

They don’t have to have bachelor’s degrees, but they should have training beyond high school. “You need a higher skill set in our stores and distribution centers,” Bere said in an interview after a recent House hearing on the Workforce Investment Act.

Dollar General has long been an advocate of federal training programs. Bere urges other companies to join in the effort to reshape the system. 

“The business community has to step up,” Bere said. “Only by partnership is this going to get done.”

When it comes to job training, many constituencies want to see improvement. But it will take firm leadership from Obama and Congress to make sure that they work together to set priorities that make sense for workers and the economy.

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