by Mary Ellen Flannery
While American workplaces have changed dramatically over the past 15 years, the federal law that coordinates job-training programs hasn’t been updated since 1998. But this week, the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed a bipartisan bill to provide long-awaited and timely updates to the Workforce Investment Act (WIA).
“It’s been more than a decade since we first passed the Workforce Investment Act, and though it’s already had an incredible impact on our economy, this legislation is well past due for improvements and reauthorization,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), committee member. The legislation had been due for reauthorization in 2003.
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The Senate bill, which passed 18 to 3 with significant Republican support, differs in important ways from a House version, which was approved in March after every Democratic committee member walked out of the room. Importantly, the Senate bill increases focus on college credentials, which are so often necessary for workers in today’s economy. The bill also authorizes community-based job training grants, which typically involve community colleges, and maintains the traditional presence of community colleges on the workforce investment boards that oversee job-training programs at the state and local level.
NEA believes it’s very important for post-secondary educators who actually provide job training in community college classrooms and laboratories to be involved in the decision-making process. “Their perspective is vitally important,” wrote Mary Kusler, NEA director of government relations, in a letter to HELP members earlier this week. As WIA reauthorization moves forward, NEA leaders and member will continue to work to make sure their voices—the people who know best how to deliver training—will be heard.
“Over the long term, it is in America’s best interest to ensure that all potential workers have the skills and training they need to reach their full potential and contribute to a vibrant economy,” wrote Kusler. “We thank you for your efforts thus far and look forward to working with Congress to reauthorize WIA and achieve that goal.”
On Wednesday, Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA) also introduced an amendment that would provide federal grants to job-training programs organized around regional needs. For example, if the biotech industry in Ohio can’t find skilled labor, a partnership involving colleges, business and union leaders, and local work-force boards would organize to fill that need.
According to a recent survey, 91 percent of manufacturing businesses are struggling to find qualified employees. Meanwhile, a Georgetown University study [ed note: pdf link] has said that of the 50 million new American jobs likely to be created by 2018, 30 million will require a post-secondary degree or certificate, and the country likely will fall short of qualified workers by more than 3 million.
The bill passed this week, if passed and signed into law, should go a long way in helping find and train those workers. It especially will help students and workers with disabilities by requiring state vocational rehabilitation programs to work with local schools to make “pre-employment transition services” available to students with disabilities. The bill also required individuals with serious disabilities, under the age of 24, to attempt competitive, integrated employment before he or she can consider working at a segregated workshop or sheltered employment setting.
“Despite passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act 23 years ago, too many people with disabilities continue to be tracked into segregated employment settings,” said Harkin. “The updates in this bill will provide people with disabilities more opportunities to get ‘real-world’ work experience, along with improved transition services, so that they have a better chance of securing competitive, integrated employment.