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.