Congressional lawmakers have a real opportunity to help more people find the jobs they want and need. Unfortunately, it looks like they may blow it.
This week, the House Education & Labor Committee marked up what turned out to be an entirely partisan Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act of 2022 (WIOA) that proposes spending billions more, all while prioritizing bureaucracy over people-centric solutions.
WIOA sends federal funds to states and local boards to provide training and education programs to help people enter the workforce and find higher earnings. After the recession and economic shutdown we’ve just experienced, training and workforce development are essential to getting people’s livelihoods back on track.
The U.S. has 5 million more job openings than unemployed people. Contributing to this is the fact that during the 2020 recession, the labor force participation rate plummeted from 63.4 percent down to 60.2 percent. We’re at 62.4 percent today. This means there are nearly 4 million more people on the sidelines who are not employed and not looking for work than there were before the pandemic hit.
However, even this number is low. The labor force participation rate specific to prime-working-age males, ages 25 through 54, has been dropping since the 1950s. Among this cohort, 7.1 million men today are not participating in any way with the labor market. This has been an area of economic study and concern for both sides of the aisle. One main reason for their absence is the mismatch of skills to the demands in today’s labor market. Addressing this problem is the exact purpose for WIOA: to improve job skills for potential workers.
Rather than putting forward solutions to our workforce problems that target serving these individuals, the WIOA that the Committee marked up focuses on giving unions more sway in training, requires even more paperwork, and entrenches the bureaucracy. It misses the very real problems at the heart of why WIOA isn’t solving our workforce problems.
If we want our work-capable neighbors to move into lives enriched with work and self-sufficiency, then the path to work must be easy to navigate and the programs driven by results. We can do this in two ways: First, give states the option to create real — not just on paper — one-stop shops to help these individuals find employment and training. Second, reform how we measure and track outcomes.
States must create one-stop shops to work by integrating the safety net, which many unemployed people need, with the corresponding state workforce capabilities. Right now, Utah is the only state in the nation that has fully integrated human services with workforce services. When you enter Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, their employment and benefit needs are addressed at the same time, in the same office, by the same person. This creates a system that is streamlined and provides no wrong door to work opportunities.
For persons in need, this saves them hours of paperwork and chasing down case managers in different government offices — hours that could be spent caring for their families, earning money, and finding or training for a job. For the state, this could redirect millions of dollars from supporting fragmented administrative structures into direct services to help people.
Utah has proven over decades that this model is successful and had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country during the pandemic. Today Utah continues to have the lowest unemployment rate. So, why is Utah the only integrated system?
Utah took on a massive internal reform effort throughout the 1990s — and their structure was grandfathered into federal law. But this very same federal law prohibits other states from fully following the Utah model. This is an easy fix for those who hold the pen in marking up WIOA. All they need to do is provide other states the same options and flexibility given to Utah to allow them to consolidate safety net and workforce development programs.
Next, we’re not tracking whether the individual training programs are producing actual outcomes. There is little to no reporting on whether safety net recipients are connecting to training programs, much less whether they achieve employment outcomes.
WIOA instituted some performance accountability systems in 2014 that are supposed to track outcomes, such as how many people get a job, how much they are paid, and how long they keep the job. Unfortunately, these metrics lack context. From them, it is not possible to know whether training needs are being met from both the viewpoints of those seeking work or from employers who need to hire workers.
Moreover, these metrics are difficult to access. You need a degree in data science just to be able to download and evaluate the data. They are therefore hidden from the public and state lawmakers who can only see aggregate data of the entire state. This hides the true successes or failures of programs that are supposed to serve vulnerable populations like disabled individuals who want to work, historically disadvantaged minority groups, and ex-offenders.
Further, local workforce boards can adjust their levels of performance through negotiations with the Department of Labor, which undermines the very purpose of the accountability system. These negotiations and subsequent adjustments are not disclosed. Every program is graded on an individual curve. If you can’t track or measure the results based on transparent benchmarks, how do we know if the programs are serving the intended people?
More than 80% of people surveyed in a recent poll across Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas said that they believed vocational and technical training will lead to more jobs and reduce poverty. There are simple solutions that could bring real accountability and outcomes to this country’s largest federal workforce training system. In WIOA, Congress is missing its opportunity to reform the workforce development system into one that simplifies the path to success and rewards job outcomes for those needing employment.