A Bipartisan Effort to Build Skills

A new bill in Congress that has generated bipartisan support promises to reduce administrative burdens and provide states the ability to tailor services to meet their local employment and workforce needs.

Monday, June 30, 2014
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It's an often talked about paradox for employers and job seekers these days: an economic climate that has resulted in double-digit unemployment rates, despite many employers lamenting that they simply can't find the qualified staff they need to fill key positions.

Congress to the rescue! In May, a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives vowed to move forward with new legislation -- the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act -- to help address the issue, streamlining the process of accessing resources in the process.

This Act reauthorizes and amends the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) which, says attorney James J. Parks, "frankly has not been funded or utilized in like the last 10 years." Parks is a partner in the Southfield, Michigan, office of Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss, and has a national practice in litigation, traditional labor and employment law. Before practicing law, Parks worked as a Federal Agent for the National Labor Relations Board.

It's a problem that has been duly noted.

"The current workforce-development system is broken with too much bureaucracy, too many inefficiencies, and too little accountability," said John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, in a press release issued by the Education and the Workforce Committee.

According to a one-page summary of the legislation, the WIOA will create a streamlined workforce development system by:

 * Eliminating 15 existing programs.

 *  Applying a single set of outcome metrics to every federal workforce program under the Act.

 *  Creating smaller, nimbler and more strategic state and local workforce development boards.

 *  Integrating intake, case management and reporting systems while strengthening evaluations.

 *  Eliminating the "sequence of services" and allowing local areas to better meet the unique needs of individuals.

The widespread realization that the WIA is broken, and bipartisan support for the WIOA in an

era of high political divisiveness, bodes well for the Act's passage.

The bill will make job-training programs more efficient and effective by requiring that states develop unified plans to streamline and better coordinate these services, according to Representative George Miller, senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

"What this Act means to do is to reauthorize the Workforce Initiative Act for the time period of 2014 through 2020," says Parks. "It's a bipartisan, two-house bill which, as you can imagine in our U.S. Congress these days, are few and far between, given the political climate."

That bipartisan support makes it likely that the Act will pass. And, notes Park, there's little controversy surrounding it.

"It is a common-sense approach to what used to be more of a bureaucratic mess, and it intends to take 15 existing programs under the Federal government and get rid of them by implementing the WIOA in their place." If passed, the Act will pave the way to educate and nurture employees to become positioned to take on jobs in sectors that are experiencing critical skills gaps.

Others agree that passage is virtually guaranteed.

"Although not a slam-dunk, the compromise has a high chance of enactment before long because of widespread congressional support for improving the existing system," says Marta Moakley, an attorney and legal editor for XpertHR in New York. "The support of various labor organizations, state governors and large corporations helps as well," she adds. "I think there's a good shot because, in effect, it deregulates and enhances the objectives of these various programs by making them uniform."

Ilyse Schuman, a shareholder in the Washington office of Littler, also believes the Act has a good chance of moving forward. "The fact that both House and Senate leaders of both parties came to this agreement is certainly a positive sign in the fact that it will make it across the finish line," she says.

"What the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is all about is really making sure that the Federal job training system and workforce development resources are responsive to the needs of businesses and responsive to making sure that workers have the skills they need to fill the jobs today and tomorrow," she says.

Once passed, of course, implementation is another issue.

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"The Workforce Investment Act has been overdue for reauthorization for the past decade," says Moakley. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle agree that an update is necessary, she says. But, she adds: "The extent of the consolidation - or the cuts - is still up for negotiation."

Parks agrees, saying, "The problem you always have when you change anything in the government is the bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a self-sustaining animal." There appears to be no debate, though, about the need for the resources the Act promises to provide access to.

From an HR standpoint, the impact -- at least at this juncture -- appears to be minimal, and largely positive.

"I cannot see any reason it would not make HR's life easier," says Parks. Currently, those who access any of the 15 existing programs must become expert in each, he says. "This is attempting to streamline that so that there is one set of outcome metrics that they have to follow for every Federal workforce program that falls under the Act." It is, he says, basically "one-stop shopping."

In addition to removing some of the red tape and administrative burden previously required, says Schuman, this new Act "means that, hopefully, there will be another avenue for businesses and for HR professionals to turn to, to try to find skilled and qualified workers."

Moakley agrees. "If the legislation is passed and signed by the President, recruiters may soon have access to job seekers who are newly-trained in necessary skills and eager for work," says Moakley. "In a show of efficiency, a provision in the current version of WIOA would eliminate the 'sequence of services' requirements and allow job seekers to receive the highest level of training services -- like career training at an educational institution -- with a one-stop center recommendation."

In addition, she says: "The legislation would also encourage a focus on industry-recognized certificates and credentials - a boon to certain sectors experiencing skills gaps in hiring." And, she says, a streamlined system would impact not only specific industries, but the long-term unemployed -- and, in fact, even those who may become unemployed. The Act includes considerations of displaced workers impacted by layoffs or plant closures, she says.

"Under the reforms, the WIA-authorized Adult and Dislocated Worker Program would continue," says Moakley, "providing states greater discretion in allocating the total percentage of program funding. In the case of a mass layoff or plant closure requiring Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act compliance, an employer would have to notify the local workforce investment board so that displaced workers could take advantage of the program."

Time will tell what the actual impact of the Act will be, and when the training and education proposed will be in place and available for organizations to access. But, it's hard to argue against the idea that the intent of the Act is a noble one.

"I think the goal is to help America compete in a way that we haven't been competing for a while -- increasing peoples' skills and developing a workforce that works," says Parks.


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