Workforce Development Has Bipartisan Momentum in 2020

Lawmakers look to pass bills on student aid, apprenticeships and worker training

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer February 7, 2020
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2020 Skills Summit panel

National Skills Coalition 2020 Skills Summit in Washington, D.C.

​Congressional Republicans and Democrats intend to introduce bills that update laws on federal education policy, apprenticeships and workforce development this year.  

The National Skills Coalition (NSC), a Washington, D.C.-based public-policy research and advocacy group, identified the legislative proposals that could have the most traction this year at the organization's annual Skills Summit, held in the nation's capital.

"Skills is a bipartisan issue," said Katie Spiker, director of government relations at NSC. "We continue to see bipartisan support for skills policy on both sides of the aisle. Bipartisan bills on higher education, workplace learning, and infrastructure have both Republican and Democrat champions."

The White House also is interested in workforce development. President Donald Trump signed two fiscal year 2020 spending bills in late 2019 increasing funding for most workforce and education programs.

Spiker said that apprenticeship funding was increased by $15 million to $175 million—the fifth consecutive annual boost in apprenticeship dollars—while career and technical education received $20 million more this year in state grants, bringing the total for that funding to well over $1.2 billion.

"The package also included spending priorities that direct the Department of Labor (DOL) to use funding to support community college capacity to deliver workforce programming and to better connect the public workforce system, educators and employers in local industry partnerships," she said.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which governs the nation's system of one-stop career centers and provides access to training and employment services, is up for reauthorization this year. Passage should go smoothly, as only minor changes are expected, according to Congressional sources.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on workforce readiness.]

Reforming Higher Ed

The Higher Education Act (HEA) is a multibillion-dollar federal investment in post-secondary education, including federal financial aid for students such as Pell Grants. It has been up for reauthorization since 2013, and many experts believe this is the year it will happen.

"There is an appetite in Congress to reauthorize the HEA," said Katie Brown, senior federal policy analyst at NSC. She said that the narrative around higher education "has completely changed on Capitol Hill," as more people now recognize that workforce skills training is tightly tied to post-secondary education.

Passing an HEA overhaul is "the top priority" for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the committee responsible for drafting it, according to Republican committee sources. The former education secretary for George H.W. Bush wishes to cement his legacy on the issue since he is retiring at the end of this year.

The House proposed two separate bills—one Republican, one Democrat—reauthorizing the HEA in 2019. "Even though neither of these crossed the finish line, that work was really important to build momentum," Brown said.

Bills up for inclusion in an HEA legislative package include:

  • The Jobs Act, which would modernize the Pell Grant program by making those grants available for short-term training programs. Under current law, Pell Grants—needs-based grants for low-income and working students—can be applied only toward programs that are over 600 hours or at least 15 weeks in length, while many job-training programs are shorter-term.
  • The College Transparency Act, which would ensure students, employers, parents and policymakers have the data they need to make informed decisions on where to spend money on postsecondary education. "Students need to know when they're picking a program, which types of programs will help them succeed," Brown said.
  • The Community College to Career Fund in Higher Education Act, which would invest federal support to sustain partnerships between community colleges, training providers, businesses, unions, and community organizations to provide training.
  • The Gateway to Careers Act, which links career pathways with support services like career counseling, transportation and childcare.

Work-Based Learning

Apprenticeship policy is in flux right now. The DOL is expected to issue final regulations for president Trump's new industry-led apprenticeship system this Spring, while the House of Representatives is working on bipartisan negotiations to revamp the National Apprenticeship Act for the first time since its initial passage in 1937.

Democrat sources in the House said that a proposal is expected "very soon," and would "codify the existing system, streamlining and modernizing where we can" and "clearly define standards for youth apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs."  

Lul Tesfai, a senior policy analyst at New America, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C., said that in order to scale up apprenticeships in new industries like IT, finance and health care, it's important to be clear about what apprenticeship is: "paid, structured, on-the-job training that combines classroom instruction; clearly defined wage increases commensurate with skills gain; high-quality third-party evaluations of apprenticeship structures; and an ongoing assessment of skills."   

NSC believes there's a chance to pass the Partners Act, which would support local industry or sector partnerships, especially for small and midsize businesses, to develop work-based learning programs. "The federal government has made significant investment in apprenticeship in recent years, yet none adequately targets funding to industry partnerships at the level necessary to scale work-based learning to meet business demand and worker skill needs," Brown said.

2020 could also see the inclusion of work-based skills training and employment services as part of federal infrastructure legislation. "We know that investment in infrastructure is a real driver of job growth," said Kermit Kaleba, managing director of policy at NSC. "The bipartisan Builds Act would support grants for work-based learning and apprenticeship programs to develop a pipeline of skilled workers especially for infrastructure jobs in fields like transportation, construction and energy."

Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., not only intends to be one of the main advocates for a national infrastructure bill that includes workforce training, but he also intends to introduce the Skill Up Act next week. The proposal would expand the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) to support employers that are not just hiring low-income workers, but "adding extra credit" for providing those workers with learning and training opportunities.

"WOTC currently helps businesses hire workers with barriers to employment, including veterans and disadvantaged youth, but does little to offset the cost to employer-provided training," Horsford said. "The bill will offer targeted tax incentives to businesses that invest in work-based learning to workers most in need of training. On the-job-training and credential attainment are proven successful in improving wages and retaining employees."     

Addressing the Impact of the 'Future of Work'

Lawmakers have begun considering solutions to worries arising from the growing adoption of automation technologies and the potentially tremendous changes the "future of work" has in store for U.S. workers.

The bipartisan Congressional Future of Work Caucus in the House of Representatives wants to devise a national plan to address concerns about workplace automation, the use of artificial intelligence tools in hiring, and gig-worker rights.

"The future of work is a hot topic on Capitol Hill right now and skills, education and training will be central to the discussion," Kaleba said. "One area we need to be looking at is investments in worker retraining. Millions of jobs will change over the next few years and we need to think about creating pathways for people while they are on the job and while their jobs are facing major disruptions."

The issue of digital literacy is also critical. "We hear from employers about the importance of digital literacy—so much of work is done today through computer technology and many workers don't have the digital literacy skills needed to be competitive in the 21st century," Kaleba said.

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