President Seeks to Increase Job Training Opportunities for America’s Unskilled Workers

On Thursday, July 18, the president signed an executive order that creates the Council for the American Worker. Led by the secretaries of commerce and labor, the Council is expected to focus on reorganizing federal workforce development programs and generating funding for new job training initiatives, especially apprenticeships and older worker training.

This initiative comes as business and industry are reporting a shortage of qualified workers to fill the nearly six million job vacancies. Of the 6.6 million Americans who are unemployed, most lack the skills and education to fill current job openings, according to the nation’s business leaders.

According to the White House, twenty-three private-sector companies and trade unions have come together to create up to four million apprenticeships, and retraining and continuing education slots over the next five years. If this effort succeeds, the president and many business leaders believe the current skills shortage among America’s workers can be addressed.

The initiative would also bring together representatives from business and industry, unions, and state governments to examine the range of federal workforce development programs and better align them to meet the labor demands of the private sector.

Unfortunately, the initiative feels a bit like “déjà vu all over again.” The very things that the president has tasked the private and public sectors with in this initiative were what led to the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA) and lie at the heart of what local workforce investment boards do every day.

For more than a decade, Congress discussed and debated what needed to be done to ensure that the nation’s workforce system operated effectively. Four years ago, Congress passed and then President Obama signed into law the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The law received strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, and passed overwhelmingly (415 – 6 and 95 – 3, respectively).

The result is a system that ensures that:

  • Workforce development areas and labor markets, to the extent feasible, are co-terminus;
  • Workforce development programs provide services to anyone seeking job assistance –veterans, youth, persons with disabilities, dislocated workers, people in poverty, and food stamp recipients, to name just a few;
  • Job search and job training assistance is available through locally-based one-stop workforce centers, which bring together training and support programs from throughout the federal government rather than from one department or funding stream; and
  • Local leaders – both elected and appointed — work with business and industry to identify employer needs and provide the kinds of job training, education, and supportive services through the local one-stop that are necessary to help employers fill job vacancies.

Should we be duplicating or replacing an existing program before we know its impact on local and national employment trends? The desire to reorganize or reimagine the job training system is really part of a larger attempt to cut federal funding for job training programs. And the other question is why establish a jobs council without including local elected and appointed officials who are directly responsible for implementing and operating workforce development programs?

Despite these questions, we should not minimize the importance of this effort. Workers’ wages have decreased over the past forty years, with the most dramatic effect on prime-aged males with limited skills. Their median annual earnings have fallen by twenty-eight percent since 1969. Post-secondary education, healthcare, and childcare are out of reach for a large portion of Americans.  And much of this is tied to the lack of skills of these workers, who often need to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. So, it is clear, something must be done. President Trump’s proposal is in its infancy, and how it plays out will tell us a lot more about what was intended and what is possible. We welcome the administration’s efforts to ensure that all Americans have the skills they need to be productive, working Americans.

Where Do Job Programs Stand in the Face of Potential Labor Department Cuts?

On Tuesday, June 27, 2017, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (Labor/H) held a hearing at which the current Labor secretary, R. Alexander Acosta, testified on the president’s budget and other matters.

While the conversation often strayed in various directions, including worker safety, foreign workers, public safety, and worker layoffs, it ultimately returned to jobs, and the clear belief by most members of the subcommittee that putting Americans to work requires a robust and effective workforce development system. For members of the subcommittee it did not matter whether these unemployed or underemployed workers were coal miners from West Virginia, young black men from Chicago, or workers who lost their jobs because of outsourcing. Ultimately, the conversation always came back to the need for and the importance of jobs, job training and job placement programs.

Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) opened the hearing by bemoaning the fact that the administration was proposing to cut the Labor Department’s budget by $2.3 billion or 20 percent. He added that while he supports efforts to reduce federal expenditures overall, he wondered aloud whether these Labor Department cuts make sense. If adopted the president’s budget would cut 40 percent of the Labor Department’s workforce development budget. In turn, that would mean that 40 percent of state funding for job training and placement services would vanish, and place individuals and their families at risk for unemployment and a significant loss of income.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking member, echoed Chairman Blunt’s concerns, but added this criticism (and I paraphrase):

The president’s budget request is deeply harmful. It will make it extremely difficult to continue to connect workers to jobs – which is, of course, the central mission of the Department of Labor. Our ability to keep good jobs in America will only be realized by tapping into the full potential of our workers. This budget disregards the bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which Republicans and Democrats worked on to ensure an effective federal, state, and local job training system. In fact, nine million of the 20 million who are served by this program will be denied training and connections to the workplace. We need robust investments that help workers and state and local officials grow our economy and get to work, and not the deep cuts proposed by the administration.

Secretary Acosta did not shy away from the debate. In the face of significant criticism from senators on both sides of the aisle, Acosta made clear that the president’s vision for America is “good and safe jobs for all Americans.” He noted that while unemployment is very low – about 4.3 percent – some six million jobs remain unfilled. He went on to say that we have to train Americans to fill those jobs if we are to remain a strong and vibrant nation, and often the best way to train people for these jobs is through apprenticeship programs.

“The answer, according to the president,” Acosta said, “is to expand apprenticeships. High quality apprenticeships ensure that workers have the appropriate skills and ensure that they can earn a decent income.” He pointed out that post apprenticeship starting salaries can top $60,000. “That’s more than the average starting salary for a college graduate,” he added.

When queried about the cuts to existing programs, Acosta said there are many programs – some that are duplicative, and some that have not proven their value – that need to be eliminated, consolidated, or changed. “The department is using rigorous standards to determine what works and what does not, and those standards will form the basis for our judgments about which programs should continue and which should not, which should be funded and which should not.”

Despite the back and forth, an interesting admission emerged at the end from the secretary. Acosta said that the president’s budget is only a starting point, and that the administration and he are looking forward to working with Congress to hammer out an appropriate budget for the Labor Department. Where that will lead remains to be seen.