Workforce Skills Programs Need More Funding, Policy Reforms

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer February 15, 2019
Workforce Skills Programs Need More Funding, Policy Reforms

​Updating the Higher Education Act to reflect current labor market needs and supporting work-based skills training are two of the top priorities for workforce development policy in 2019.

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

"As the U.S. economy continues to grow, investments in education and training have never been more important," said Kermit Kaleba, NSC federal policy director. "Helping workers obtain the skills and credentials they need to take advantage of emerging job openings, while helping U.S. businesses find the workers they need to compete in today's economy, is mission-critical."

Kaleba added that Congress and the Trump administration must work together this year to build on 2018 achievements. "Congress worked on a bipartisan basis to update the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act; expand access to training for SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] recipients under the farm bill; and increase funding for adult education, apprenticeship and other workforce investments," he said.

Katie Spiker, senior federal policy analyst at NSC, added that apprenticeship funding was increased by $15 million to $160 million last year—the fourth consecutive annual boost in apprenticeship dollars—while career and technical education received $70 million more in fiscal year 2019, bringing the total for that funding to $1.2 billion. The coalition is hopeful that the nation's workforce training programs covered under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act will receive similar appropriation increases this year. The law is up for reauthorization in 2020.

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

Reforming Higher Ed

The face of postsecondary education is changing, said Katie Brown, senior federal policy analyst at NSC. "Seventy percent of these students are nontraditional, meaning they work part or full time or they're parents or they're older than the traditional college student," she said. "It's important to address the changing needs of these students because 80 percent of jobs today require some form of education or training beyond high school. More people need to enter the postsecondary system, and one of the key policy levers to do that is through reforms to the Higher Education Act."

The Higher Education Act, a multibillion-dollar federal investment in postsecondary education, including federal financial aid for students such as Pell Grants, has been up for reauthorization since 2013.

The NSC advocates for allowing workers to use federal Pell Grants to earn short-term certificates and credentials. "Nearly 1 million Americans seeking better jobs pursue short-term credentials, offered through community and technical colleges and other institutions," Brown said. "These programs can increase earnings by 30 percent or more compared to a high school diploma, and in some fields, the average earnings of those with in-demand credentials can exceed the average earnings of those with a four-year degree."

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.

Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, proposed to drop those thresholds to 150 hours and eight weeks in legislation introduced during the last Congress. They are expected to reintroduce the proposal in their JOBS Act again this session. "Both senators are very excited about this bill and making it a top priority," Brown said.

NSC is also recommending that the Higher Education Act reauthorization include provisions to improve postsecondary education and workforce data; establish nontuition funding support for students such as child care, transportation assistance and career counseling; and increase funding for partnerships between employers and community colleges to develop skills pipelines that support local economic growth.

Apprenticeship Regulations Are Coming

Apprenticeship programs attracted lots of attention in 2018. "We've seen a lot of engagement among policymakers," Spiker said. "The Department of Labor (DOL) spent much of the year taking the first steps toward implementing the president's new industry-led apprenticeship system. DOL released guidance on the initiative in July, and we expect formal regulations sometime this spring."

In addition to providing support for apprenticeships, NSC recommends that lawmakers:

  • Include work-based skills training as part of federal infrastructure legislation. "There is growing bipartisan support for significant new investments in our nation's roads, bridges and other infrastructure," Spiker said. "These efforts could create millions of new construction, manufacturing, IT and utility sector jobs in the coming years. Nearly half of these jobs would require some education and training beyond high school, meaning we will need to ramp up our support for apprenticeships and other demand-driven skills strategies."
  • Support local industry or sector partnerships, especially for small and midsize businesses, to develop work-based learning programs. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and a bipartisan group of representatives in the House introduced the Promoting Apprenticeship through Regional Training Networks for Employers' Required Skills (PARTNERS) Act on Feb. 7.
  • Expand the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) to support employers that are not just hiring workers using the credit but also providing those workers with learning and training opportunities. "WOTC helps businesses hire workers with barriers to employment, including veterans, disadvantaged youth and low-income workers, but does little to offset the costs of employer-provided training," Spiker said. "As a result, many employers that offer well-paying but higher-skill jobs are unable to take full advantage of the program by training workers with low skills to be their future workforce."

In addition, NSC would like to see Congress update the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to support training opportunities rather than institute work requirements. The coalition also calls for legislation that creates a pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program beneficiaries who have middle-skill credentials, not just college degrees.


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