What Has the Nation’s Workforce Investment System Been Able to Achieve?

March 22, 2013

By Neil Bomberg

This article is the first in a series of three designed to educate NLC members about the Workforce Investment Act.

For the past fifteen years, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) has been a significant force behind efforts to put people to work and back-to-work in meaningful jobs that are likely to provide sustainable employment and livable wages.

When WIA was established in 1998 by Congress and then President Clinton, it was envisioned as the nexus for the coordination of resources to close the gaps between the skills of America's workforce and business' needs for workers. While there has been significant debate as to whether WIA programs have achieved this, there is no doubt that these programs have been very successful placing workers in meaningful jobs even while the country as a whole continues to suffer from the lingering effects of the Great Recession. In 2011, WIA programs provided services to 7.1 million adults, 1.3 million dislocated workers, and 280,000 youth.

During and after the Great Recession, when the average unemployed person had a 25 percent chance of finding a new job, those who participated in the WIA system had a better than 50 percent chance of finding a new job. While clearly we would have wanted all of those in the WIA system to find employment, a doubling of the chance of finding employment was not only statistically significant, but very meaningful to those unemployed individuals who found work. Underscoring the success was that 80 percent remained in their jobs after six months.

How did the WIA system do this? By crafting a locally-based, and locally operated employment and training system that involves local elected officials, local business leaders, educators, human services providers, economic development experts, and others who want to create a growing, strong, vibrant, and sustainable local economy that reflects what is happening in the local labor market, the regional economy, and small to medium-sized business.

This WIA sponsored employment and training system is doing what is absolutely necessary: investing in the skills of the American people. But to yield the greatest return, according to leading experts in training and employment services, these investments have got to align with the demands of our labor market and the needs of our workforce. As the National Skills Coalition (NSC) points out, although, it is widely recognized that most jobs require postsecondary education, it remains true that the vast majority of jobs require only middle-skill credentials (community college or certificate programs), and the largest portion of Americans stand to benefit from middle-skill training.

But our investment in workforce development for this segment of the population has and continues to be very small, and over the past several years has even decreased. According to NSC the federal government spends $3.5 billion a year to prepare people for 70 million jobs (48%) that require middle-skill training. That's enough to train 500,000 people, a small fraction of the 160 million who could benefit from investments in this level of training.

In contrast, according to NSC, the federal government spends $33 billion to prepare 53 million youth to enter postsecondary education or training, or to enter about 25 million jobs (17%) which do not require education past high-school, and the federal government spends $22 billion each year to prepare people for 50 million jobs (35%) that require a four-year degree. That's enough to serve six million of the 30 million people who could benefit from investments in traditional access to college.

While NLC would never call on the federal government to reduce investments in either secondary or post-secondary education, we do believe that there is a huge disparity in the investments that are being made on behalf of those who are in secondary school or four year institutions of higher learning, especially when one considers that those that require middle-skill training may be among the most needy Americans, and the ones most likely to benefit from training and employment services.

When one considers then, the very small investment that is made in our national workforce investment system, it is in fact very impressive that it has been able to achieve a placement rate that it has, with the outcome of placing people in sustainable jobs with livable wages.

Next: Why Is Congress Seeking to Dismantle the Nation's Workforce Investment System?