Bipartisan Agreement Reached on Workforce Development Legislation

After years of wrangling and near misses, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate announced today that they have agreement on a bill repealing and replacing the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. Given growing frustration with a weak labor market and a sluggish economy, the announcement shines a light on an area of rare bipartisan consensus—the need for more and better ways to connect people to good jobs.

First, a quick refresher on what we’re talking about. The Workforce Investment Act represents the country’s largest federal investment in employment and training programs—over $3 billion in fiscal year 2012. It reaches a wide spectrum of populations, including out-of-school youth, low-skilled adults, dislocated workers, and individuals with disabilities. The funds are distributed to states to support local and regional workforce development activities.

While the newly drafted Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) would maintain both the spirit and the structure of the Workforce Investment Act, it would also make some important changes. Chief among these are the elimination of 15 programs authorized under the act, the downsizing of workforce investment boards, the establishment of common performance metrics across individual programs, and better integration of services to individuals with disabilities.

WIOA also places more emphasis than its predecessor on the development of career pathway approaches and sector strategies, both of which aim to build stronger connections between job training programs and the needs of local employers. That’s been a major focus of the early education community, in particular, as it tries to strengthen training and credentialing for child care and pre-K teachers and workers. In fact, early education advocates got a nod from the WIOA authors in the form of a multistate study on creating and implementing career lattices for low-wage providers of health care and early education—including faculty in teacher preparation programs.

We’re encouraged to see some progress is finally being made. And lawmakers seem serious about it. With today’s announcement, they also rolled out the full text of the bill and a battery of fact sheets and summaries. Perhaps the biggest indication that they’re serious comes within the legislation itself: Lawmakers went so far as to authorize appropriation levels for specific programs in the bill. While that’s a separate process from actually appropriating the dollars, it seems much of the hard work is already done (though funding levels are set at similar levels to current-year spending).

That said, there is a lot more work to do on aligning our workforce development system with other policies that help people get skills and credentials for work.

The new bill splits the difference between the SKILLS Act (H.R. 803), which passed the House of Representatives in March of 2013 with bipartisan support, and the Workforce Investment Act of 2013 (S. 1356), which passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee with a bipartisan vote of 18-3 in July of 2013, each of which had their own merits. So we’re hoping that the thud of this announcement doesn’t mean WIA is off the table in future policy discussions around the skills gap and how to build better transitions from school to work."


Mary Alice McCarthy is the director of the Center on Education & Skills with the Education Policy program at New America (CESNA). Her work examines the intersection between higher education, workforce development, and job training policies

Clare McCann is the deputy director for federal higher education policy with New America's Education Policy program. She previously served as a senior adviser on higher education policy at the U.S. Department of Education.