When I was asked to do research on the status of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) and how any of the Act’s latest developments may have impacted community colleges, I considered it a relatively easy assignment. But then I started to look closely into the WIA and discovered that I would need some help with interpreting what’s been going on under the WIA banner and where things may or may not be heading.

I started reading government documents and printing out reams of information about WIA only to get more confused than anything else. Then I started calling on some of my sources whom I thought would know a lot about this topic. Most referred me to other people, who then referred me to more people. Before long I had a long list of people who knew a lot about WIA but were not really WIA experts.

Everything changed when Julian Alssid, executive director of the Workforce Strategy Center,  introduced me to the National Skills Coalition (NSC ) where I was connected to NSC Senior Policy Analyst Kermit Kaleba, a WIA guru of gurus.

Here’s, in part, what I learned from Kermit:

A Very Short and Quick History Course on WIA

For those who follow WIA, you probably already know that it was signed into law in August 1998 and was built on previous federal legislation passed in 1982 – the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA). WIA replaced JTPA with three programs: Adult, Displaced Worker and Youth. It requires that these programs be delivered through several thousand one-stop career centers located across the country.  Overall, the Act is focused on helping meet the needs of business and industry by providing training and education opportunities to individuals in the form of voucher-distributed Individual Training Accounts. Individuals with these valuable vouchers can opt for training and education services offered by WIA-state-board-approved community colleges and private training companies, both of which have benefited through these enrollments paid for with federal dollars.

Incidentally, I have a personal friend who benefitted from this program.  Essentially she was a dislocated, adult worker who went to a one-stop center for help. After getting counseled and taking some free courses and skills assessments provided at no cost to her by the one-stop center, she was awarded a voucher that enabled her to enroll in and complete courses at a community college that ultimately earned her a credential that successfully paved a pathway for a new job.

So, the system can and has worked for individuals, but it’s also overly bureaucratic on the systems side of things. Some of my community college sources, for instance, have told me that figuring out how to participate in WIA [supported by state-level Workforce Investment Boards (WIB) appointed by governors] is a burdensome administrative undertaking that may not be worth the effort.

Reauthorization: Not

That’s where the reauthorization process is supposed to kick in. Reauthorization Acts are meant to prescribe changes that make the “system” better and more efficient. Education-oriented Acts like WIA should be reauthorized every five to six years, but WIA has not yet been reauthorized. It has been kept alive each year through the annual federal government budget and appropriations process. Since 2000, however, WIA funds have been reduced quite substantially.  

Last summer, a bipartisan-negotiated effort from a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions  (HELP) committee introduced a draft WIA reauthorization bill  [see an excellent issue brief on this by the Center for American Progress], but, unfortunately, it never made it out of the committee process.

Where WIA is Now

So, where does that leave WIA at this time? Well, pretty much no place new due primarily to a paralyzed Congress.  In the meantime, both parties have introduced WIA reauthorization bills [see the NSC analysis of Republican HR 4297 and the Democratic HR 4227] that basically amount to a lot of posturing because neither one has a decent chance of becoming law.  

In relation to community colleges, in particular, the Democratic HR 4227 includes a stipulation that authorizes funding of the joint Department of Labor and Department of Education $8 billion Community College to Career Fund to expand capacity to train workers in high-growth industries, such as health care, transportation and advanced manufacturing.  The Republican HR 4297 does not include authorization of that fund. Either way, it does not matter, because the Democratic Senate would not pass a Republican bill, and the Republican House would not pass a Democratic bill.  Any kind of serious effort toward WIA reauthorization more than likely will not happen until next year after the November presidential, senate and house elections.

Hugely Increased Demand but Lower Funding Equals Less Services for Those Who Need Them Most

Getting back to my new friend Kermit at NSC, he explained to me that WIA funding over the past two years alone has been cut by 12 percent, while participation in the program has increased by about 248 percent.  “It just makes it harder,” he said. “Anybody who walks into a WIA-funded one-stop center is supposed to be able to get at least a minimum level of service.  There are fewer resources per person. If you wanted to invest in training, the reality is there is just not as much money available to provide good, high quality training for as many people as you would want to train.”

In other words, not nearly as many of those Individual Training Account vouchers are being distributed, which is especially disheartening when we still have such high levels of unemployment.

What’s Next?

“I think there is a growing recognition that we need to be investing in job training, just in general, “ Kermit added. “We’ve got employers saying that they cannot find skilled workers. Community colleges are one of the places where people can get the kind of training that’s needed.” However, Congress is not supporting WIA adequately enough, which basically means that both community colleges and private training companies are both losing out on the possibility of federally funded enrollments. Plus, of course, the serious-minded, dislocated, unemployed American workers who can’t afford out-of-pocket costs to earn some kind of credential to pursue a new job pathway are obviously losing out as well.

Bottom line, in my opinion, is that it makes sense to invest in developing a stronger American workforce through WIA, but at the moment all we can do is pay attention to what’s going on and let our representatives know what we support. If I were a community college, it certainly seems that it would behoove me to support the Democratic HR 4227. The Republican HR 4297 also has plenty of reforms that make a lot of sense.

What do you think?