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Blog: A New White House Job Training Initiative

Apr 16, 2014 | By Carolyn Burstein, NETWORK Communications Fellow

Today (April 16, 2014), President Obama and Vice-President Biden announced a new initiative that will help close the “skills gap” that prevents people from getting access to high-paying jobs. The announcement, relating to two separate efforts, was made at a community college in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

The first and larger of the two initiatives is a $500 million competitive grant program to community colleges, designed to encourage them to work closely with employers and industry to create training programs that are geared toward the jobs needed by employers. Besides evaluating these programs on the basis of their success in placing graduates in paid work, this competitive grant effort will also place a priority on partnerships with national entities, such as industry associations. The national group must pledge to help design the job training program so that the credential acquired at its conclusion would be recognized and accepted across a particular industry, giving the job seeker additional leverage in gaining employment nationwide.

The Labor Department is also making an additional $100 million available to expand apprenticeship programs. Even though evaluations of apprenticeship programs in the U.S. indicate that 90% of apprentices end up in jobs that pay more than $50,000 a year, the U.S. has never had more than a few such programs. Germany has 15 times as many programs as this country even though its population is much smaller. Apprenticeship programs are credited for that country’s low youth unemployment rates.

The intent of the apprenticeship program is to grow existing successful programs and to create new programs in high-growth fields, such as information technology, health care and advanced manufacturing.

This two-segment job training effort is part of the administration’s focus on micro-initiatives the White House can take through executive action without the involvement of an often-gridlocked legislative process. The $600 million required for the two initiatives has already been appropriated – the $500 million is from the Trade Adjustment Assistance and Community College and Career Training grant program, and $100 million is from Dept. of Labor’s funds generated from fees employers pay the government when they hire skilled immigrants on H1-B visas.

Compared to the $18 billion currently funding all federal job training programs, which for many years have been roundly criticized as duplicative, un-evaluated, misguided, and generally, unhelpful to job seekers (not all true), $600 million is a mere drop-in-the-bucket and will not lead to a complete overhaul of these programs. However, the intent of the administration is to conceptually rethink the nature of job training in the U.S. and the way that businesses relate to aspects of the school system. In its thinking, the White House believes its twin-based initiative will gently nudge Congress in the right direction. Of course, to have the desired impact, legislation would be required.

Earlier this year, the president signed an executive order requesting that Biden lead a task force in reviewing all federal job training programs and set a date of July 30 deadline for his report. House Republicans immediately complained that Biden’s effort to review these programs was a waste of time because the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had already identified redundancies, lack of coordination, fraud, waste and unevaluated claims made about the programs in over more than 30 years of reviews. They urged the administration to convince the Democrats to vote on a house-passed measure that proposes a streamlining of all federally-funded job training programs and includes a drastic reduction in funding.

In fact, the Nonprofit Quarterly says in its April 2014 issue that more than 50 GAO audits have examined job training programs across 9 different federal agencies (the bulk of programming is in the Employment Training Administration in the DOL). However, they say, the tenor of these reports is usually on how to better administer them from a federal perspective, rather than on what works well. Simplified and consolidated programs don’t automatically lead to programs that work, just programs that are easier to administer. Biden et all need to examine programs that have been field-tested over time with evidence that they work. They need to pick the brains of the nation’s best locally-focused and pragmatic job training programs (e.g. Project Quest in San Antonio, Manchester Bidwell in Pittsburgh, the Henry Street Settlement in New York) and successful job training programs at the state level where governors from both parties have put their own state resources into the effort.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), half of all new jobs projected to be created between 2012 and 2022 are jobs that typically don’t require any post-secondary education. But jobs that require some post-secondary training tend to have higher median wages ($57,000 in 2012) compared to those that require only a high school diploma and pay much less ($27,600).

These statistics tend to back up administration officials who say that well-executed and well-evaluated job training programs are essential to move the stubbornly-high unemployment rate downward. These officials have heard from many business leaders that are unable to find the skilled workers needed. Additionally, administration officials claim that many workers are discouraged and need assurance that a job will be waiting for them when they complete their training. Thus, we are given a rationale for the competitive grant program for community colleges.

What about the apprenticeship program? One would hope there will be an extensive analysis of the current apprenticeship programs operating throughout the U.S. with an emphasis on best practices as well as a thorough examination of apprenticeship programs operating in other countries, especially the German programs. Biden’s task force must carefully sift out those elements in foreign programs that would not work in America, but preserve certain characteristics of these programs that have universal applicability. The latter is a tough, but necessary task that would benefit from having experienced anthropologists and historians on board.

During the president’s second term, we have heard much rhetoric about public-private business incubators as well as advanced manufacturing using clean technology. It is possible that Biden’s task force can turn this rhetoric into reality by taking several ideas about best practices in state and local programs in job training and in apprenticeship programs in the U.S. and abroad and weld them into viable units of true innovation in both areas in this initiative.

It is gratifying to hear that a bipartisan job training effort is finally underway, at least at the committee level. Once a bill is produced, we look forward to examining its content and offering support, if it channels resources to the type of job training that will create vital and sustainable jobs. We strongly believe, as stated in the Faithful Budget, 2014, that work is more than a means to making a living; it provides a person the opportunity to use their gifts, talents and education to contribute to the common good.