HR Can Boost Workers' Skills Under New Job Training Law


By Steve Bates August 13, 2014

HR professionals will have increased opportunities to build the skills of their employees under the new, business-friendly federal law revamping workforce training programs, according to experts.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), supported by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and signed into law on July 22, 2014, replaces the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which had been on life support for years. The new legislation was crafted to unsnarl existing training programs and to encourage businesses, educators and community organizations to collaborate more closely to close the country’s skills gaps.

The new law “will continue to strengthen the ties between education and industry,” said Michael Cartney, president of Lake Area Training Institute (LATI), a small technical school in Watertown, S.D. “A lot of it has been informal. This will help to formalize it.”

In addition to giving young people job-ready skills, the law will help businesses enhance the knowledge of existing employees. That’s particularly significant given the deep cuts that many employers have made in their training budgets in recent years.

“There is government money on the table for employers,” said Alicia Mazzara, a policy advisor in the economic program at Third Way, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

“The law’s emphasis on incumbent worker training will help complete the cycle by fostering total career pathways,” said Scott Sheely, executive director of the Lancaster County (Pa.) Workforce Investment Board.

Changes in the manner that occupational education is delivered have already begun. There is less emphasis on degree programs and more on shorter learning opportunities that lead to job-specific certifications. In the Lancaster County system, training programs ranging from two to eight weeks can result in certifications that qualify people for vacant jobs in the region, Sheely said. “Job seekers are saying, ‘I can’t go to school for two years; I have a family to feed,’ ” he noted.

In addition, companies are offering internships, apprenticeships and other onsite learning, and some businesses are helping to design the curricula for workforce training programs.

For example, an industry advisory council that includes leading local employers gets the final say about the job-related curriculum at LATI before it is rolled out. Training is adjusted on the fly as employers’ needs change. And the institute can establish a new degree program needed by industry within a year.

Existing Practice Laid Groundwork

Government regulations and guidance will flesh out the new law, and Congress will have to approve appropriations to make it work as intended. But experts say it is clear that there is a new direction for workforce development after years of fragmented programs and low rates of graduating and employing participants.

“The system today is a holdover from a difficult era that’s gone,” said Edward Gordon, a workforce education expert and president of Imperial Consulting Corp. in Chicago. “The new law will allow local workforce boards to customize training with business to fill vacant jobs.”

That new direction is not just theory. Many innovative training programs have taken root across the U.S. in recent years, despite the limitations of the WIA.

“The organizations doing workforce development right helped lay the groundwork for the WIOA,” said Pauline Vernon, director of workforce development for Memphis (Tenn.) Bioworks Foundation, a nonprofit economic development agency. “It’s been a long time coming.”

The methods and emphases of successful workforce training programs vary substantially.

For example, New York City-based nonprofit Enstitute places young adults in apprenticeships around the country in which they shadow executives in the technology, media and life sciences industries and learn multiple skills. A program offered by the Memphis Bioworks Foundation trains local workers for high-tech jobs typically filled by foreign workers brought to the U.S. under H-1B visas. And the Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board crunches data constantly to anticipate and provide the skills that southeastern Pennsylvania manufacturers will need.

These programs were among many highlighted in a July 2014 report, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Workforce Programs, from Third Way. According to the report, successful programs:

  • Engage local businesses actively.
  • Use labor market data.
  • Treat education like a job.
  • Connect people to careers.
  • Support students with services.
  • Tap innovative funding sources.
  • Embrace evaluation.

“There are a lot of successful programs operating on a small scale that can be expanded,” said Kane Sarhan, co-founder of Enstitute. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

HR’s Role

Getting employers, educators and community organization leaders to work together to match workers with skills has proven to be a slow process in some communities. HR can help foster these collaborations, said Vernon, who chairs the Workforce Development Committee of SHRM—Memphis Chapter 134. The WIOA provides “a great opportunity for HR professionals to get involved,” she said.

Angela Hanks, senior federal policy analyst with the National Skills Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group advocating better workforce training, said HR can work with industry sector partnerships “as local areas figure out how to implement this law. There’s certainly a role for HR professionals working with other partners in the community.”

The WIOA will give workforce training programs more flexibility in the use of various funding streams, experts say.

Measuring the effectiveness of workforce training programs is another key element of the law. Many training providers monitor and assess their effectiveness, but it is difficult to compare the widely disparate training systems around the country.

“We want to be measured and accountable, but we want common measures,” said Jim McShane, CEO of workforce services provider CareerSource in the Tallahassee, Fla., area.

Fundamental skills, such as math and reading, and soft skills, such as communicating effectively and working well in teams, will remain essential features of job training programs, experts say.

Closing the skills gap can start with something as simple as a one-on-one conversation, Gordon said. For example, “You have these 10 IT jobs you need to fill. We found 10 individuals out of work.” From there, the conversation moves to how the business and educators can transfer specific skills to the job seekers.

Said Vernon: “Companies are pretty happy that there’s somebody out there trying to help them.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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