Community Groups’ Role Vanishes Under New Federal Workforce Legislation

On July 22, 2014, after it passed by wide bipartisan margins earlier in the year, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed by President Obama. This law represented […]

On July 22, 2014, after it passed by wide bipartisan margins earlier in the year, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed by President Obama. This law represented the culmination of several fits and starts—in both the Bush and Obama administrations—along the way to reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act (WIA).

This updated law, which is being implemented this year, retains some features of the previous legislation, but also makes some changes that push community-based organizations to the sidelines.
Under both WIA and WIOA, the public workforce system is led by Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs)—nearly 600 local/regional bodies, plus workforce planning entities in each state and the District of Columbia—and American Job Centers (formerly known as One Stop Centers), which provide services and training to help individuals to access, maintain, and progress in employment.

Both these kinds of entities are intended to reflect the needs of both job seekers and employers, and making sustainable collaborations that can balance those needs has required deft acrobatics. In FY2014, $2.6 billion in federal funding was disseminated to local WIBs, representing 14.3 percent of the $18 billion in federal dollars spent on training. Though this pales in comparison to the $1.1 trillion spent on postsecondary education and training at large (according to a recent Center on Education and the Workforce report), it still represents the largest single non-discretionary source of public funds for building human capital potential for those no longer in compulsory education, and typically serve low-income individuals. As training resources dwindle for disadvantaged persons at a national level, these funds are worth fighting for.

The newly enacted law also has two changes in it that exacerbate a decade-long policy trend to make community-based organizations less relevant in workforce development.

The first significant change has to do with how CBOs participate at the workforce development planning table. To support a strategic approach toward workforce development planning, workforce investment boards have long been mandated to have a majority of the seats at the table accorded to employers. What differs in WIOA is that the composition has shifted from at least 51 percent of the seats for employers to 2/3. More alarmingly, community-based organizations are no longer mandated players at all; WIBs can assign CBO seats at their discretion.

With fewer seats available, CBOs face more competition with each other to even be recognized, let alone have a voice. This change in composition is especially ill-considered given that in the new legislation, workforce investment boards must engage in strategic planning exercises to reflect changes in the local economy every three years, as opposed to the previous five. But CBOs are probably best positioned to give voice and grassroots support to planning exercises that affect their constituents—who typically include the job seekers who benefit from the services and offerings of the workforce system. Cutting them from the table makes little sense.

Though it is too late to change the law, there are ways CBOs can make themselves relevant and engaged in workforce development activities even under the current arrangement. I would suggest that the senior management teams of the CBOs in a jurisdiction jointly convene an annual workforce forum to identify skill gaps, evaluate job hiring trends, and present an asset inventory of training resources. The results of this forum could then be presented to the leadership of the WIB to inform employers (now at the larger end of the table) and other partners (those serving on the WIB and others within the CBO’s jurisdiction) and as they design their strategic plan.

Beyond that, CBOs should stake out partnerships with other CBOs to create a pipeline of referrals for job vacancies, so that job listings are not only available through the local American Job Center but also available online through the CBO. In doing so, the information gap on job listings and the skills/qualifications need to fill them can be narrowed.

A second change in the program has to do with funding. Under WIA, there were three separate funding streams representing adult incumbent workers, youth (age 16 to 24), and dislocated (unemployed) workers. Many WIBs outsourced the delivery of employment activities under a competitive bidding process, through which many CBOs received awards to support after-school youth programs, soft skill training programs, job-specific classes, ESOL language classes, and other career readiness activities.

While these separate funding streams remain intact in the new law, WIOA regulations will permit transfer of up to 100 percent of the local allotments between adult incumbent workers and adult dislocated workers. This de facto consolidation has a direct effect on WIBs, as they will now have to triage needs and draw from the same pool to support the needs of the distinctly different populations. CBOs lose in this approach as funding streams dry up and competition among different community-led training programs intensify. In turn, WIBs are likely to move to support programs with lower costs per participant and be forced to choose between providing assistance for training the unemployed and programs that create meaningful career ladder progression for those already working (or vice versa).

I would suggest that CBOs again come together and convene annual workforce training forums, in conjunction with local/regional government leadership, to identify the goals and strategize on the use of resources that are being spent to address workforce challenges at the grassroots level. CBOs must then create partnerships with WIB leadership, so that the findings of these forums can be shared, and not ignored, and all stakeholders can come to a common definition of “expanded workforce opportunity” that is inclusive of the needs of the underserved and/or underrepresented.

These findings can then be pressed and advocated for by CBOs at the WIB decision-making level and a new set of sustainable partnerships can be identified and built. If these innovative partnerships reflect the demands articulated from the street level and also address employer needs, then these collaborations will fulfill the promise of WIOA.

(Photo courtesy of Alachua County via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

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