Congress debates the future of job-training programs

March 31, 2013

IMPROVING JOB training and workforce development are on everyone’s to-do list for the U.S. economy. But the federal government has spent decades — and many billions of dollars — without ever quite achieving consistently effective policy. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report identified 47 different, often overlapping, federal programs that purport to prepare people for employment, at an annual cost of $18 billion. Yet little is known about the effectiveness of most programs, the report noted, in part because their results are not regularly evaluated.

Indeed, some critics, such as the libertarian Cato Institute, question the need for federally subsidized job training and job-search assistance in an age of online want ads and distance-learning. For all their free-market enthusiasm, the Republicans who control the House of Representatives do not embrace that view. But on March 15 the House did pass a sweeping overhaul of the biggest federal workforce programs.

In essence, the SKILLS Act, as the measure is known, takes federal funding streams previously dedicated to various categories of workers — such as veterans — and combines them into a block grant that states may deploy according to their own plans, subject to prior Labor Department approval. The bill, touted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in his Feb. 5 “Make Life Work” speech, authorizes $6.2 billion per year through 2018 for this “Workforce Investment Fund.”

Insofar as it reduces administrative overhead and bureaucratic mandates, the bill could improve the system. Today’s fragmented menu of services is already being delivered through “one-stop” centers, so “customers” won’t necessarily see and feel much difference from a cleaned-up organizational chart. But it might free up resources for more services.

Opponents, including the Obama administration and House Democrats, insist that vulnerable, hard-to-employ populations will be shortchanged if Congress eliminates funding streams dedicated to them. The SKILLS Act at least addresses this concern by requiring states to plan for the needs of specific populations and by funding veterans-employment specialists at the one-stop centers.

The entire debate, alas, is light on data and heavy on politics. Among the bill’s more provocative features is to end organized labor’s mandatory presence on local boards that oversee how the funds get spent and to give business two-thirds of the board seats. Also, governors — 30 of whom are Republicans — would get to reshape the regions each local board controls.

Democrats are pushing their own bill, which includes a promising idea — increased support for “sectoral” programs that prepare workers for specific jobs in a local industry — but otherwise builds mostly on the status quo. The Senate has yet to weigh in.

President Obama has, in the past, called for streamlining job training, but he hasn’t spent much political capital on the issue. A March 13 White House statement opposing the SKILLS Act promised to “explore” alternative reforms. Finding a bipartisan fix for rickety federal workforce programs won’t be easy. Without presidential engagement, it won’t be possible.

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