When Shelterforce proposed an article on training legislation, I assumed that, by the time I started to write, I’d be summarizing a recently passed law. Indeed, several months ago I bet a colleague that legislation would pass, well, several months ago. All of this raises two obvious questions: what on earth was I thinking when I placed such a bet, and, more to the point, why is it so difficult to consolidate training programs in the United States?
Serious reform of the U.S. employment and training system at the federal level is long overdue. We need better performance standards for programs, and, frankly, we need to spend a lot more money on these systems. About 125 million Americans are working with no significant federal program or employer mandate to promote skill upgrading. Of more than seven million unemployed workers, about 500,000 received displaced worker training through JTPA Title III or Trade Adjustment Assistance. And over 36 million Americans live in poverty while only about 300,000 adults receive JTPA Title II support.
The last big training reform effort led to the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) in the early ’80s. That legislation created a set of training programs linked to specific populations. The legislation:
- provided protection for current workers, so trainees wouldn’t be used to degrade existing job classifications;
- defined geographic service delivery areas for the different programs;
- provided a rapid response network to engage displaced workers early in their spell of unemployment;
- established requirements for governance of the new structures;
- provided a funding formula and small allocations to both governors and the Department of Labor for unforeseen needs;
- provided some performance measures around replacement wages for displaced workers.
The JTPA is a better piece of legislation than its detractors say. The JTPA was a classic compromise. It gave employers a lot of control over service delivery, but it guaranteed labor a seat at the table. It gave some flexibility to governors and federal agencies, but most funds went to local areas. Though its detractors on the Right would never admit it, most of the weaknesses of the JTPA stem from its fundamental structure – it’s too close to being a block grant. It should have more federal accounting and performance requirements, not fewer.
In the first Clinton Administration, the Re-Employment Act proposed a modest consolidation of about six programs. This effort came on the heels of a General Accounting Office study that found over 200 training programs in the federal budget. The methodology was suspect, but the impact was undeniable. Members of Congress had a field day, one-upping each other as they declared in hearings, “As of today, the number has increased by one. We now have (fill in the blank with some huge number) training programs.”
The Re-Employment Act effort to consolidate these programs ran aground on elimination of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), clarity about what was lost but confusion about what was gained, and too few programs consolidated to satisfy consolidation advocates. Proposing consolidation of six programs out of (fill in the blank with some huge number) appeared silly to those who wanted to block grant all employment and training. In the end, the Re-Employment Act had plenty of lukewarm opponents and no overwhelming advocates.
This brings us to the latest round of consolidation activity. Given the breadth of the legislation, many training constituencies see their programs being consolidated away with an uncertain alternative; for these groups, the devil they know is better than the devil they don’t. And speaking of devils, the hard Right raises the specter – largely unrelated to the actual legislation – of federal control over education as a threat to family values. To mollify them, the Senate bill excludes School-to-Work, a pet initiative of the Clinton Administration.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill recently, and the House did so last year. While this bodes well for those who want legislation, it bears remembering that the last Congress’ effort seemed similarly momentous until languishing in the House/Senate conference. As the current training consolidation effort moves through that process, labor will review options based on six principles laid out before the House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities last year.
1. The governance of a reformed system must include significant public input and labor representation. A decentralized system like the one proposed must include input and explicit labor representation for accountability and effectiveness. The process of certifying training providers, given expanded use of vouchers, must be carefully evaluated.
2. Public agencies should be the core of the system, providing an “honest broker” role and protecting the privacy of customers. Efforts to degrade the system through privatization should be rejected.
3. The rights of current employees should not be threatened by employer use of “trainees” to displace workers or reduce wages. Current JTPA language in this area is strong.
4. Funding and program categories for displaced and disadvantaged populations should be distinct, ensuring that appropriate treatment strategies are pursued to match the unique labor market situations of individuals. Big progress was made on this front during the development of the legislation, which began in the House as a single adult block grant.
5. Comprehensive services should be available on a universal basis so that all job seekers have access to accurate labor market information, advice, and a menu of available training options.
6. And finally, as noted in the above recounting of needs versus current spending, these systems must be funded at a more substantial level. If the United States is serious about using skills and training to advance our competitive position in the world economy, we shouldn’t pretend we can do this with program consolidation alone. A national commitment will mean program reform and a vast expansion of resources.