Bill to Upskill U.S. Workers Moves Forward in the House

Main goals of the legislation: keep employers competitive, provide good jobs

May 19, 2017
Bill to Upskill U.S. Workers Moves Forward in the House

The House of Representatives will take up a bill that has been touted by both its Republican and Democrat supporters as a means to train more workers to fill in-demand technical jobs that are available now—and into the future.   

The House Education and the Workforce Committee voted unanimously  May 17 to move the bill forward. The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act would provide federal funds to increase access to career and technical education (CTE) and, in particular, to extend such access to more students from disadvantaged communities. The bill would reauthorize and update the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the main federal law that provides funding for state and local CTE. The act was last revised in 2006, before the Great Recession.

To compete in a global economy, "21st century businesses need 21st century workers," said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., who co-sponsored the bipartisan bill with Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa. In turn, U.S. students need "more dependable and well-paying job possibilities after graduation"—jobs that pay a living wage and offer employer benefits.   

The committee voted to add one amendment to H.R. 2353: to increase the number of dual (or concurrent) enrollment programs, which allow high school students to begin earning credits toward postsecondary training or education. This fast-tracks students on a meaningful career path and saves them money, since they graduate high school with credits that count toward the requirements of a training program or certificate.     

Businesses need more skilled workers in many fields and industries, including manufacturing; construction; carpentry; health care; computer programming; engineering; auto mechanics; transportation and distribution; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; plumbing; electricity; and even art and design.

What H.R. 2353 Would Mean for Employers

The representatives repeatedly stated that employers must take responsibility for their role in providing skills training and education to current and prospective workers. Employers should be involved with their local workforce investment boards. In addition, organizations must ensure that state and local governments know what their skills needs are so that officials can create programs under this legislation. And once programs are put in place, the onus is on employers to give feedback on what's working and what's not.  

What H.R. 2353 Would Mean for State and Local Governments

The task of crafting CTE programs that would best fit the needs of employers in the community would fall to state and local governments. Proposals for these CTE programs would be submitted to the federal government for approval. Once a program is in place, state and local governments would need to show that it effectively trains workers for these in-demand jobs; programs that show poor performance will be at risk of losing their federal funding.

Last year, during the 114th Congress, a near-identical bill was introduced in the House, and representatives overwhelmingly voted in favor of the legislation, 405-5. The bill progressed to the Senate but ran out of time when it was delayed by debate over the education secretary's role in determining how states could spend money under the law.

The Public Relations Problem with CTE

Committee members spoke extensively about the need to combat the stigma often associated with trade jobs in the U.S., even though such CTE-based jobs can lead to careers that are more stable and offer higher wages than many careers that require bachelor's or master's degrees.

"Most students today do need some type of postsecondary training, whether that's a one-year certificate, a two-year community college degree, a four-year university degree or more. There are many credible careers—that pay well—which do not require a four-year degree," said Janet Goble, the director of Career and Technical Education in Canyons School District in Sandy, Utah. She is also administration division vice president for the Association for Career and Technical Education, based in Alexandria, Va., which advocates for educational opportunities that prepare individuals for available jobs and keep workforces competitive.

Traditional bachelor's and master's degrees frequently saddle students with debt and are still not a guarantee of success in the working world, said committee Chairwoman Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., on May 16. "But many people who don't have degrees don't feel successful, and that's not a good thing in our culture."

Foxx added that she doesn't think all U.S. students should be expected—or should even want—to go to college. Many people believe that "the path to success begins on campus," and this idea leads to the devaluing of other skills that are just as important in society, she said.   

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