Where We Stand: Modernize America’s Education and Job Training Systems

by Neil Bomberg

Politicians, researchers, policymakers and the media seem to be in agreement that the world of work is changing rapidly and so, too, must the nation's job training and education systems.

A recent Harvard University Graduate School of Education report concluded, without equivocation, that, "The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is ... badly broken."

The report also noted that "other countries manage to equip a much larger fraction of their young people with occupationally relevant skills and credentials by their early 20s," thereby easing the transition into adulthood. The International Labor Organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, recently reported that adults will continue to face employment problems unless they have a well-developed job training system available to them that can help them adjust to the post-Great Recession work place.

NLC shares these concerns and, as a result, has been urging Congress and the Administration to modernize its K-12, post-secondary and job training systems to ensure that every American has access to an adequate education and job training services.

NLC has told Congress and the Administration that city elected officials believe that the current focus of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is too narrow and restrictive because it punishes schools and school systems that do not meet testing standards, when the objective of the testing should, first and foremost, be to determine how to best ensure that students are learning.

Unless we focus on what students learn and gain from their academic experience, NLC has argued, we will not be able to prepare young people to transition to post-secondary education and the world of work.

Part of this lies in acknowledging that some of the most disadvantaged students need more than just a productive and safe classroom. They also need the kinds of support that after-school initiatives, out-of-school youth programs, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Race to the Top and vocational programs can provide. Full funding for these programs will enable disadvantaged students to have access to programs that improve their educational attainment and help them obtain the skills they need to succeed in the world of work.

NLC has also told Congress and the Administration that locally based job training programs have found it difficult to respond to the changing work place because of limitations imposed by the Workforce Investment Act, which was originally passed in 1998, when the world of work and job skills requirements for successful employment were much different.

Among the changes NLC has recommended is an overhauled and simplified governance structure that puts local elected officials and a very small and nimble workforce investment board in charge of local programs, including a local one-stop center where clients can obtain a broad range of services, including food stamps, education, human services assistance, unemployment benefits and job training.

Local businesses, in turn, should guide and advise the boards on what jobs are emerging, what types of workers they need and what types of training their workers should have. Working together, the local boards should develop a strategy for training those workers and providing businesses with the workers they need.

But the problems don't end with improvements to the K-12 or job training systems. Post-secondary education is becoming increasingly unaffordable, and programs to pay for college for economically disadvantaged youth and adults are becoming less accessible.

Pell Grants, a principal source of funding for low-income post-secondary students, are being cut in numerous ways. Changes in the laws governing Pell Grants are making it more difficult for low-income heads of households and workers to qualify for the grants and limitations on the amounts available to an individual over a given year are making it more difficult for low-income students to fully matriculate.

The high cost of tuition, even at public universities and colleges, is making it more difficult for middle-income individuals to matriculate, and if they do, the amount of debt they incur can be overwhelming.

Right now, the college loan debt exceeds the nation's credit card debt. USA Today has reported that student debt has doubled in the last five years, while consumer debt has decreased sharply. In fact, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the U.S. Department of Education, in 2010 the amount of student loans exceeded $100 billion and total outstanding student loans exceeded $1 trillion.

NLC has argued that this is not the position we should find ourselves in, and has called on the federal government to make greater investments in education and job training, and find ways to make access to higher education more affordable. As we move out of the Great Recession it has become clear that our failure to invest in education and training will put our competitiveness and economy at risk. The future is ours if we make the right investments, and among these, according to NLC, are investments in education and job training.