It’s Time for a New Approach to Workforce Development

Blog Post
two workers build rebar framework for foundation pillars as the sun comes up early in the morning
Shutterstock (Humannet)
March 12, 2024

Over the last six years, there have been profound shifts in U.S. economic policy. The decades-long consensus on free trade has given way to industrial policies that protect American companies and workers. The pandemic was met with a robust and sustained fiscal stimulus that shored up household finances and invested in long-term infrastructure projects – a far cry from the austerity policies of the Great Recession. Trust-busting is back after years of hands-off regulators that enabled intense concentration in key industries.

But the appetite for wholesale change has stopped at the door of social policy. Our approaches to poverty, joblessness, housing and food insecurity, and child and elder care all remain firmly entrenched in the anti-government ethos of the 1980s and 90s. Nowhere is this more evident than in our current federal workforce development system which, despite decades of desultory results for jobseekers, remains little changed from the days of the Clinton administration.

In fact, workforce development policy continues to embody many core elements of neoliberal ideology, with its emphasis on markets over governments and its dismissal of structural imbalances in power between workers and business. The system was ostensibly designed with a dual purpose – to help people who are out of work find jobs and to help local employers find workers. Like so many neoliberal policies, the solution was simply to design a market in which supply could meet demand. But the ways the system operationalizes that “dual customer” mission are driven by a set of beliefs about jobseekers and employers that assume the worst of the former and place no accountability on the latter.

First, the system takes as its primary goal moving people into a job as fast as possible. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, it was common to assume that the best way to help move someone out of poverty was to get them a job quickly. Any job. These “work first” strategies, which have evolved into work requirements across a number of domains, have reinforced long-standing patterns of occupational segregation by race and gender that push women and Black and Latino workers into low-wage and precarious jobs.

Second, the system was organized around the belief that to help job seekers, it’s necessary to empower employers. Since employers have the jobs, the thinking goes, they should lead state and local workforce development systems so that training and other services are aligned with their talent needs. This belief is codified in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which requires that a majority of all state and local boards be made up by private sector employers and that the chairperson also come from the business community. While employers certainly should have a say in local workforce development strategies, there is no reason that it should come at the expense of workers also having a meaningful seat at the table. More importantly, this paternalistic approach that amplifies the power of employers closes off opportunities for workers and their representatives to steer the system and its resources to issues that matter to them such as job quality and worker protections.

A third pillar is the belief that the primary reason workers struggle to find or keep a job is because they lack skills or credentials. As a result, the system provides jobseekers with opportunities to access skills training programs. Of course, education and skills training are very important for helping people access good jobs. But in our low wage labor market in which many entry-level jobs fail to provide economic stability, the skills piece is rarely the biggest hurdle workers face. Good pay, benefits, and job security are what people need to stay in jobs and keep advancing. Short-term training programs rarely get people into those good jobs. Rather, they shuttle job seekers into the high-turnover (“in-demand”) jobs that are all too common for the working poor.

Underneath each of these pillars is a foundational belief that worker rights and job quality are not the business of the public workforce system. There are no bad employers in our federal workforce development laws and too few levers for local job centers or workforce boards to push their systems toward high-road employers and quality jobs. Indeed, in some parts of the country, workforce development leaders treat discussions of worker rights and protections as fundamentally anti-employer and therefore unwelcome in the system.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have a highly effective federal workforce development system that empowers workers, rewards high-road employers, and raises the floor for entry-level jobs. Some states and cities are already doing it, through high-road training partnership models, worker rights education programs, and community enforcement strategies. Worker-led workforce development is also happening outside the public workforce system, and these programs – often led by unions, labor-management partnerships, or worker centers – can be a guide to federal policymakers and help them think more broadly about the “what, why, and how” of workforce development.

Today, New America is joining 13 other organizations in launching the Good Jobs Collaborative, an independent, non-partisan policy coalition committed to building a new narrative to guide workforce development policy that is grounded in principles of economic justice, advances racial and gender equity, is organized around the needs of workers first, and builds opportunities for worker voice and power.

As Congress takes up WIOA reauthorization, we welcome opportunities to help them craft a bold new approach that puts workers and their welfare at the center of federal policy. If we can rethink trade policy, we can change workforce development policy. And now is the time.

Related Topics
Workforce Development & CTE