Investing in a skilled workforce is vital to America’s long-term economic growth and global competitiveness. Even as the Zero-16 Contract for Education proposed earlier would enable young people graduating from high school to pursue college or career training, the Career Opportunity Plan would increase opportunities for those who have already begun their working lives, particularly low-wage workers and the unemployed, to qualify for jobs that can support a middle-class standard of living. While worker retraining will not, by itself, solve America’s unemployment problem or transform the nation’s low-wage workforce, access to training is nevertheless critical for expanding economic mobility. Access to job training is particularly important for the growing number of long-term unemployed (5.4 million Americans have been out of work for 27 weeks or longer as of February 2012)1 as their skills become increasingly disused or outdated. 

In the coming decades, a large proportion of new jobs are projected in fields like health care that require education and training beyond high school, but not necessarily a four-year college degree.2 Enabling adults to retrain for these largely middle-class jobs provides an important mechanism for individuals to improve their economic prospects.

Investment in workforce development has traditionally been strongly bipartisan. With support from both major political parties, the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 streamlined the array of federal job training programs to create a decentralized network of “one-stop career centers” where jobseekers could access local employment and training opportunities and support programs under one roof.

In response to the mass unemployment and worker displacement of the Great Recession, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided a $4 billion boost in funding for job training programs in 2009, including grants earmarked to support training in the most rapidly growing sectors of the economy. These extra resources enabled a substantial increase in the number of citizens participating in occupational training and other workforce development programs – more than 8 million Americans accessed such services under the Workforce Investment Act in the 2009 program year.3 But the temporary increase failed to reverse the long-term shortfall in federal job training resources: funding for the Workforce Investment Act has fallen almost 30 percent over the past decade in real dollars, while funding for other adult education and workforce preparedness programs has also declined.4

In addition to greater investment in workforce development, it is also critical that job training programs correspond to the workforce needs of local and regional employers so that jobseekers are trained for positions that actually exist in their area. Our proposal is modeled on the Strengthening Employment Clusters to Organize Regional Success (SECTORS) Act, passed unanimously by the House of Representatives in 2010 but never taken up by the Senate. The legislation would provide grants under the Workforce Investment Act to promote partnerships between employers and postsecondary educational institutions in order to tailor job training programs to labor demand in a region’s growing industries.

Just as the Zero-16 Contract for Education encourages states to create an integrated educational system with clearly marked pathways for each educational stage, the nation’s workforce development system should also align programs and institutions to streamline career pathways for working adults. Finally, the Workforce Investment Act should shift its focus from short-term training and swift reemployment to also allow for longer-term training and certificate programs that will enable workers to qualify for middle class jobs.

Policy Design

This policy is based on recommendations developed by National Skills Coalition.

  • To respond to the continuing demand for worker retraining produced by high unemployment, the Workforce Investment Act formula funding for adult, youth, and dislocated worker programs should be increased to match its peak level under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
  • Establish a grant program, along the lines of the SECTORS Act, to invest in industry partnerships that connect multiple businesses and educational institutions in order to tailor job training programs to labor demand in a region’s growing industries.
  • Support state efforts to establish career pathways by encouraging states to maximize the number of participants taking advantage of both job training and basic adult education programs and allowing states greater flexibility to blend various job training funding streams.
  • Make the attainment of industry-recognized credentials a core performance indicator for the Workforce Investment Act in order to assist workers in qualifying for jobs with the potential to lift them into the middle class.

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  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Situation Summary” February 2012.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “Workforce System Results,” Employment and Training Administration, United States Department of Labor (June 2010).
  4. “Workforce System Results,” June 2010.
  5. Lynmari Morales, “Republicans, Democrats Favor Tax Breaks to Win Back U.S. Jobs,” Gallup, February 1 2012.