Democrats and Republicans divided over the scope of President Joe Biden‘s infrastructure package are seeking a bipartisan deal on at least one component: beefing up job training for Americans out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Putting more Americans back to work must be a national, bipartisan priority,” Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement.
A record 20.5 million jobs disappeared as businesses shuttered or cut staff last year. Many workers will need to be connected to, or trained for, opportunities in different fields.
The country is in the midst of the most unequal jobs crisis in modern history, a challenge that better training opportunities could address, Patty Murray(D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee, said at a hearing in April.
“We also have to keep in mind the ultimate goal here is economic security for workers and families, which isn’t just about how quickly people can get trained and get jobs—but how good that training is, and the quality of jobs associated with that training,” she said.
‘Scale of Need’
Inadequate funding has hampered programs designed to advance needed skills, job training advocates say.
“The public workforce system has been inundated over the last few months, and it’s been completely overtaxed and underfunded over the last few decades,” said Katie Spiker, director of government affairs at the National Skills Coalition.
The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing this month focused on youth job training through the Job Corps program. A second hearing slated for May 27 is on assistance for dislocated workers, and a third will address re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated people.
Job Corps programs alone were funded at $239 million below authorization levels in the last year alone, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) said at the hearing.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (Public Law 113-128), the main federal job training program, was last updated in 2014. Congressional appropriators, not the authorizing committees, get the final say over how much money to spend.
Supporters are banking on the upcoming infrastructure legislation to address that gap. Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal released last month includes $100 billion for worker training. That matches requests from organizations including the Skills Coalition.
Still, that proposal would only put a dent in the deficit between the U.S. and peer countries in annual support for workforce development. Other industrialized countries spend $80 billion more each year on job training, Spiker said. “The scale of the need is so much greater than anything we’ve ever seen put on the table in congressional conversations,” she said.
‘Kicking the Can’
A new workforce law will likely tinker with the existing framework rather than overhaul existing federal policy. It isn’t immediately clear when legislation would get introduced, though House leaders have proposed a July 4 deadline for an infrastructure package.
Democrats want to make it easier for programs such as Job Corps to serve students before they drop out of school, and expand resources such as career services for dislocated workers, a committee aide said.
They’ll also look to expand support for individual training accounts—vouchers that workers can use to learn skills approved by local workforce boards, the aide said.
House Republicans want to see the workforce more connected to the demands of employers by giving companies more input in local decisions, a GOP committee aide said.
“Expensive government handouts for temporary relief are not the answer—workers need skills that lead to lasting, successful employment and self-sufficiency,” Foxx said.
Efforts to pass a reauthorization of the National Apprenticeship Act (H.R. 447) earlier this year and in the previous Congress got stuck over a debate on industry-recognized apprenticeships that were backed by the Trump administration. Observers don’t expect similar partisan sticking points to block a deal on the workforce law.
A reauthorization effort offers a chance to rethink how federal support for workers operates, said Maria Flynn, president and CEO of Jobs for the Future, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for stronger job training policies. But that approach doesn’t appear to be on the table.
“It’s kicking the can down the road a bit in terms of looking at more structural questions,” she said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org