Federal Government Changes its Approach to Workforce Development

The language of workforce development is changing and the federal government’s shift in focus presents both some big opportunities and challenges for states.

In July, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act—also known as WIOA. It was a reauthorization of the legislation formerly known as the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. The act requires regional and statewide collaboration between workforce development programs, industry leaders and educators. Each state will be required, beginning July 1, 2016, to submit a four-year unified strategy that identifies skills gaps with employers and how the state is going to close those gaps.

“The act is designed to improve services to employers and promote work-based training,” said Robert Kight, director of Adult Services and Workforce Systems for the U.S. Department of Labor. He was one of the featured speakers at a recent CSG eCademy session, “Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act: An Emphasis on Career Pathways.”

“State and local boards will be responsible for activities to meet workforce needs for regional employers,” Kight said. “There is (a lot of) emphasis around utilizing proven work-based strategies, including incumbent worker training, registered apprenticeships, on-the-job training and customized training as well.”

Alisha Hyslop, director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education, said the new authorization shows a distinct shift in the language of workforce development being used by the federal government these days.

“One of the things I really wanted to highlight was the focus on career pathways,” Hyslop said, “from a focus solely or primarily on short-term training with the end goal of being one job, to this idea of pathways for participants with multiple entry and exit points.”

Hyslop said this shift in rhetoric is significant.

“We really think this law is a product of the fact that the entire conversation around education and labor market connections is shifting at the federal level,” she said. “Just as we finished the reauthorization of WIOA, Congress is turning to the reauthorization of the (Carl D.) Perkins (Career and Technical Education Act), which funds career and technical education around the country. One of the things we really noticed in those reauthorization discussions is that we’re talking about education as it relates to jobs, as it relates to economic development, which was a conversation that wasn’t really being had the last time we reauthorized Perkins back in 2006.”

But while this shift in thinking and focus will provide new opportunities for state policymakers to get their federal and state economic development, workforce education and education programs working together, Hyslop said, it also poses some challenges. 

“One of them (the challenges) is the continued separate systems that exist, the education community and the workforce development community,” she said. “Even though WIOA does a lot to align programs and performance measures, there still exists out in the states a number of initiatives underway that happen in silos. 

“That might be things going on at the K-12 level versus things going on more at the adult education level. Sometimes it’s things going on in education itself versus, in say, economic development or workforce development. That bridge is one that continues to be a challenge.”

Another challenge Hyslop sees is funding. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act authorizes one-stop centers, which will provide one location for programs aimed at getting people back into the workforce. The programs include those run by both the U.S. Labor and Education departments.

“That’s probably one of the biggest challenges that exists as we look at implementing this is just the fact that funding has really stagnated for both WIOA and Perkins and other federal investments in education and training over the years,” Hyslop said. “States are just coming off an economic recession where many states had to reduce resources in these areas as well. How can we meet the challenge of providing those appropriate funding levels? Hopefully, at the federal level, we’ll start to see some improvements there.” 


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