President Obama’s 2016 budget request contains an impressive array of investments in education and training as well as a number of bold reforms to existing programs. While America’s College Promise has dominated media coverage, there a quite a few other programs, both large and small, that are aimed at helping Americans build valuable skills. Scattered across the Departments of Labor, Education, and Commerce are a number of initiatives that, if funded, could help improve connections between education and the economy. Even if few of the proposals are likely to be funded, a debate around them would enrich the policy discussion. Below we feature six proposals along with questions we hope the Administration and Congress will address.
1. Registered Apprenticeship: The Administration has been focused on growing the apprenticeship sector for a few years now, setting an ambitious goal of doubling the number of apprentices in five years while investing in public-private partnerships to develop and expand programs. The 2016 budget proposes a massive expansion of these efforts with a $2 billion "flexible" grant program to states and regions to be implemented over a four year period. That’s a lot of money – the same as the entire Trade Assistance Act Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program. While registered apprenticeship programs have enviable outcomes – apprentices' starting wages average over $50,000 and job placement rates are nearly ninety percent – registered apprentices still represent a very small segment of the American workforce. Even at double the current numbers (around 3700 in 2014), that seems like an awful lot of money per apprentice.
It is also not clear from the budget documents how the proposed funds would be spent, and how they would be different from the $100 million American Apprenticeship Grant program that is already underway. Would the funds be used to subsidize the wages of apprentices? If so, the Administration is betting that it can entice employers to develop registered apprenticeships if it helps offset the cost. But it’s not clear that cost is the major reason that American employers are not adopting registered apprenticeship as a talent development strategy. Fear of government regulation, combined with a reluctance to make long-term hiring commitments, may play a larger role. How will this program be structured and how will it get employers to the table?
2. American Technical Training Fund: Speaking of TAACCCT, the budget also includes a $200 million grant program for technical training centers. We still do not have much in the way of details on this proposal, but with its emphasis on employer partnerships, sector strategies, and high growth jobs, it sounds very similar to TAACCCT. There is not a lot of federal money to support capacity-building and program development at colleges; most higher education dollars go either directly to students to help with tuition or to fund research. But building and sustaining employer partnerships, updating curricula and faculty, and maintaining equipment, are essential for high quality technical programs. Community colleges often have a difficult time financing those activities and grant programs like this can help. At the same time, grant programs are short-lived and can be very difficult to sustain and scale once the money has been spent. Challenges around scaling and sustainability are what many of the TAACCCT grantees are confronting now. Is the American Technical Training Fund designed to build on existing investments at community colleges funded through TAACCCT, or to start new projects? Will it be tied to other formula funding streams, like the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act or the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or will it be a stand-alone program? Understanding how this program will relate to other federal education and training programs may help Congress decide whether and how to fund it.
3. Career Navigation and Job Training: The President’s budget includes additional resources for the public workforce system, particularly in the areas of job training and counseling and for programs targeting the long-term unemployed, disconnected youth, and low-skilled adults. A proposed $500 million of discretionary funds would go to support the provision of more in-person service to the unemployed.
It is certainly true that the public workforce system has been woefully underfunded for years, even as demand for its services has increased, making these additional funds sorely needed. But the question looming out there for anyone interested in connecting more people to better jobs is where the good jobs are going to come from. Unemployment is down, but wages are not up. The economy is creating new jobs, but not necessarily good jobs. Other parts of the President’s budget, like the proposed investments in infrastructure and manufacturing, can help generate those jobs. Will Congress let the government drive some actual job creation? If so, improving better employment and training services can make a difference.
4. Industry Credentialing: The Administration is proposing a $500 million “Industry Credentialing and Career Pathways” grant program in an effort to spur the development of more industry-based credentials. Academic credentials – particularly degrees – are not always effective for communicating to employers the skills and abilities of the people who hold them. But non-degree credentials – certificates, certifications, licenses, badges – are only valuable if employers actually use them in hiring and promotion decisions. As employers grow more frustrated with their ability to fix skill gaps and fill vacancies, efforts that engage industry in developing and validating credentials may help create more common language between educational institutions and employers which, in turn, will pave the way for smoother transitions from one to the other. But outside of the information technology sector and some parts of manufacturing, efforts to develop industry-based credentials have met with limited success. Industry associations can develop them, but will employers actually use them? How will this time be different?
5. Occupational Licensing: Speaking of credentials, the Administration is also proposing to spend $15 million in grants to states to help them harmonize their occupational licensing rules. Licensing may not sound like an education issue, but the rules and regulations for obtaining an occupational license have a strong impact on the design of many technical education programs, from electricians to certified nursing assistants to financial advisors. States are the primary issuers of occupational licenses and set the requirements for obtaining and maintaining them. Behind those requirements lies a set of standards for ensuring that an individual obtaining a license is qualified. The rules often vary significantly across states, with different educational requirements, application fees, etc. An individual licensed in one state as a plumber may need to go back to school or pay a hefty price to get re-licensed in another.
The harmonization of the rules and procedures is an important step toward increasing the value of occupational licenses to their holders. It will make licenses more portable and more transparent. To the degree that the harmonization process helps make the underlying standards behind a licensed profession more consistent across states, it can drive quality improvement. Clear standards, in turn, can serve as an anchor for educational institutions – and their accreditors – as they design education and training programs necessary for licensure. As a rule, the United States has shied away from developing national standards for just about anything. Harmonizing state standards is a nice workaround and, in this case, can be the basis for common educational standards across a variety of occupations. So, our only question on this proposal is how can we do more of this?
6. Data Investments: Connecting education and employment means knowing which programs lead to good jobs and good wages. The budget calls for additional investments in state longitudinal data systems as well as for increasing access to federal workforce databases, both of which can help better connect educational programs to the labor market. The Workforce Data Quality Campaign has a full run-down of the data investments and their significance. The question we have for both Congress and the Administration is why stop at removing barriers to collecting federal workforce data? The student unit record ban in the Higher Education Act is a much larger barrier to understanding the economic value of particular education programs. When will Congress remove the ban?"