Senators kicked off debate on Wednesday over renewing the Workforce Investment Act, a federal law that authorizes billions of dollars for education and job-training programs, including at community colleges.
At a hearing held by the Senate education committee, the first hearing this Congress has held on the work-force legislation, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and the panel’s chairman, was adamant that the act would finally be reauthorized this year.
With the nation’s unemployment rate hovering at 10 percent, it is probably no coincidence that the 1998 law, which has been due for a renewal since 2003, has come to the attention of Congress, especially as the Obama administration focuses more attention on job creation.
Lawmakers are couching the act’s reauthorization as a vital vehicle for creating a robust work force.
"In an era of massive layoffs and downsizing, it is more important than ever that job seekers have access to the education and training they need to shift careers and adjust to the changing economy," Mr. Harkin said.
Breaking Down ‘Silos’
A main theme of the college officials, scholars, and others who testified before the Senate committee was criticism of the barriers that exist under the current law, especially the lack of alignment between federal education and labor programs. The law finances both work-force development and adult basic education, but the efforts are paid for separately. That makes it difficult to support programs that provide both types of services.
Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Work force, said that as the economy slowly recovers over the next three years there will be a growing mismatch between job openings and postsecondary education and training requirements.
Helping Americans to adapt to "these new labor market realities," Mr. Carnevale said, will depend on breaking down the "silos between our postsecondary education and training programs, job openings, and career pathways."
The Obama administration has signaled that it understands the problem, , Mr. Carnevale said, by asking for a total of $321-million in its proposed budget for the 2011 fiscal year to support a Partnership for Workforce Innovation that would involve the Departments of Education and Labor and other federal agencies. Among other things, the funds would support projects designed to improve the effectiveness of programs authorized by the Workforce Investment Act.
Cheryl Feldman, executive director of the Philadelphia-based District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund, an affiliate of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees that provides health-care workers with basic and job skills training, echoed Mr. Carnevale. Because of existing barriers, she said she is not able to enroll students in "blended" programs that provide both literacy-skills training and health-care courses. That’s because the law doesn’t allow for dual-enrollment. Instead, more than 400 applicants are on a waiting list to get literacy training before they can enter their health-care program.
Role for Community Colleges
Another key issue in debate over the act’s reauthorization is the role community colleges will play. For the most part, they have not served as the primary providers of the education and training programs financed by the Workforce Investment Act. The grants regulated by the law have been used more often to help people find jobs than to train them for new types of employment.
Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr., a Pennsylvania Democrat, heaped praised on community colleges, an indication that he may be inclined to give them a stronger role in a new Workforce Investment Act. He called two-year colleges the most "underappreciated and underserved sector of higher education."
Robert G. Templin, Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, urged lawmakers to make community colleges the "hub of work-force development" rather than just another training center.
He said current training providers, such as proprietary schools, unions, and community-based job training centers, work in isolation and therefore tend to provide only entry-level training skills that do not result in a "portable and market-valued credential." He said community colleges are adept at moving low-skill workers into higher-paying careers by developing and offering high-demand occupational programs and working directly with businesses to help train their workers.