Lawmakers Propose Bill to Help Close the Nation’s Skills Gap


Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer May 9, 2017

A group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced legislation May 4 that would provide federal funding for state and local career and technical education (CTE) programs while modifying how such funds are used to better target critical skills gaps.

U.S. Representatives Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., are the primary sponsors of the bill to reauthorize and overhaul the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which provides more than $1 billion a year in federal funds for job training programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Thompson called the legislation "a well-engineered, bipartisan reauthorization aimed at permanently closing our nation's skills gap."

Thompson's colleague, Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., said, "These programs serve more than 11 million students—helping them receive knowledge, skills and real-world experience in fields ranging from health care and law enforcement to information technology and manufacturing. It's a worthwhile investment in growing a skilled workforce, preparing students for postsecondary education or the workplace, and helping hardworking individuals—particularly younger individuals—achieve their goals in life."

But the Perkins Act was last revised and updated in 2006, and it no longer reflects "the realities and challenges facing students and workers," according to the bill's sponsors.

"Advances in technology and the growth of a global economy have dramatically changed the kinds of jobs that are available, making high-quality education and skills development vital to competing in today's workplaces," Thompson said. "Current policies restrict the ability of state leaders to invest federal resources in efforts that prioritize economic growth and local needs. … at a time when critical industries have vacant jobs but not enough qualified workers to fill them."

The proposed legislation builds on a similar bill that passed the House in 2016 but stalled in the Senate. Like the previous attempt, the legislation gives states more control over how to spend federal funds and would tighten the program's focus on in-demand jobs, reduce administrative burdens and increase the share of funds to underserved students.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: How do I partner with local colleges to develop workers?]

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act:

  • Simplifies the requirements states must follow when applying for federal funds.
  • Streamlines the state's application process and aligns it with the process for submitting the state workforce development plan under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
  • Simplifies the application process for local education providers.
  • Calls for education providers to partner with local stakeholders to perform biennial reviews to determine the needs of local communities.
  • Increases from 10 percent to 15 percent the amount of federal funds states can set aside to assist eligible students in rural areas or areas with a significant number of CTE students.
  • Allows states more flexibility to use federal funds to support CTE programs "focused on unique and changing education and economic needs."
  • Promotes work-based learning opportunities and evaluates CTE providers on their ability to effectively prepare students for the workforce.
  • Encourages stronger engagement with local employers by including them in the development of training programs and performance goals.
  • Empowers states to direct federal resources to CTE programs that provide students with skills to fill available jobs in their states and communities and support programs focused on in-demand industries or occupations.
  • Streamlines the number of performance measures at the postsecondary level and aligns these with the performance measures in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
  • Requires states to set performance goals through an open process that includes input from local education leaders, parents and students, workforce development boards, and community and business representatives, while diminishing input from the federal Department of Education.
  • Requires states to report on and annually publish performance results.

National education groups such as the Association for Career and Technical Education and Advance CTE applauded the bill in a joint statement, saying that it "[takes] steps to promote high-quality CTE programs of study, gives states and locales additional flexibility to meet local employer and student needs, promotes program alignment, and streamlines administrative requirements."

It is unclear what the Trump administration's position on the bill is, but advocates believe that it aligns well with the president's focus on upskilling the U.S. workforce instead of increasing the number of foreign workers brought to the U.S. to fill skills gaps.

Career and technical training and skilled trades jobs need a nationwide public relations facelift coordinated among employers, government, schools and nonprofits, television personality and skilled trades advocate Mike Rowe told a congressional panel responsible for vetting the legislation in February.

"Vocational education is still missing from an overwhelming majority of high schools," Rowe said. "Bills like the one before this committee still meet resistance, in part because millions of Americans still view a career in the trades as some kind of 'vocational consolation prize.' It's a bias as misguided as any other prejudice with us today, and it poses a clear and present danger to our country's overall economic security."

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