The Case for $100B in Federal Workforce Funding

New America and America Achieves are among more than 30 groups who last week wrote Congressional leaders to urge the inclusion of $100B in federal workforce investments—like those previously proposed by the White House in its jobs plan—as they continue to negotiate over infrastructure and economic recovery legislation.

Jon Schnur is CEO of America Achieves, a nonprofit group created in 2010 that focuses on education and skills development and does “long-term incubation” for initiatives focused on underserved learners. Schnur responded to questions from Work Shift about making the case for this big investment as well as his take on whether the proposal might become a reality. Here’s the exchange:

Q: Given the broad public support for workforce training, why has it been left out of federal spending bills? 

JON SCHNUR: Congress is considering historic investments in workforce development— including a bold, Biden White House plan—to provide much-needed support for effective pathways leading to good jobs. Historically, robust funding for workforce training has been left out of federal appropriations for at least three reasons—all changing quickly.

First, until recently, there has been limited evidence of impact on jobs and wages. Now, strong evidence has emerged (such as from Lawrence Katz of Harvard University) of the impact on jobs and wages of evidence-based sectoral programs backward-mapped to good jobs, and the features of programs that work.

Second, there hasn’t been evidence of strong public demand for large workforce investments. But today, a strong bipartisan majority (more than 90 percent according to a February Gallup poll) supports robust investment to ensure youth and workers have access to training and support to prepare for, secure, and retain good jobs in high-demand fields. We’re seeing a growing recognition that a robust public investment and expanded employer leadership and “skin in the game” is needed not only for the unemployed but also for the underemployed and low-wage workers needing a ladder to better jobs. This includes those without college degrees, rural Americans, women, people of color, returning citizens, and others facing barriers to employment.

Third, prior administrations haven’t prioritized the blend of robust funding and evidence-based policy. President Biden’s $100B proposal in the American Jobs Plan has changed that—as has a recent bipartisan effort in the House and Senate to enact workforce and apprenticeship legislation.

Q: Some experts say the relatively small scale of programs like apprenticeships make it hard for policymakers to focus on these solutions. Is that part of the problem?

A: Successful workforce development efforts should focus on scale and impact—especially on employment and wage outcomes for all and for historically underserved populations. The strategy also needs to address employer hiring needs at scale—especially creating diverse pipelines of talent for growing industries.

While the Biden Administration’s call for up to two million registered apprentices will help both employers and workers succeed, the apprenticeship strategy isn’t enough. Congress needs to supplement an expansion of registered apprenticeships with a jobs-driven, measurable plan and at-scale solutions leading to good jobs—such as outlined in the Biden Administration’s $100B workforce development section of its American Jobs Plan. This could also be solved by enacting a version of the bipartisan BUILDS Act proposal—while expanding that to focus not only on essential near-term infrastructure needs but also other high-demand sectors including advanced manufacturing and clean energy.

A sectoral approach should also include grants for local intermediaries who can work with employers to aggregate the likely hiring demand for good-paying upwardly mobile jobs (and needed skills) and help coordinate providers and programs to match diverse, quality talent pipelines with hiring needs. A bipartisan and evidence-based reauthorization of WIOA—as well as enacting a bipartisan apprenticeship and other workforce legislation—can make a huge impact too.

Congress should also empower individuals to finance participation in evidence-based programs.  These include training, wraparound supports, and “earn and learn” opportunities that can deliver good jobs and real upward mobility. For example, “career scholarships” or “career learning accounts” can help workers and young people access quality programs that deliver results.

Q: By citing the six-month training figure from the infrastructure bill, it sounds like these groups are keen on at least some form of shorter-term workforce training and education (although perhaps not programs that are less than 15-weeks long). Can you explain what sort of shorter-term programs this workforce proposal should support?

A: While there is no silver bullet, the emerging evidence base is clear: shorter-term programs that are evidence-based and focused on equity can be an important part of the solution. Lawrence Katz of Harvard and other researchers have found that high-quality and adequately funded programs drive persistent wage increases (typically 11 to 40 percent) and other employment outcomes. The programs with the greatest wage gains include paid work and training time. Federal policy should focus funding on programs that reflect the evidence-base, including programs that: 

  • Partner directly with employers to align employer-verified training and support programs with real in-demand jobs and needed skills that employers are seeking.
  • Focus on economic sectors and occupations where jobs are in high-demand and offer living wages and upward mobility.
  • Match participants to learning programs and job opportunities most likely to lead to success through coaching, job referrals, and other supports.
  • Drive competitiveness and equity by expanding the pool to workers from underserved backgrounds with transferrable, certified skills and to job referrals aligned with employer needs for good jobs in growing sectors.
  • Provide intensive wrap-around services, including childcare, transportation support, emergency funds, and ongoing intensive coaching during training, job placement, and on-the-job employment.
  • Provide “earn and learn” opportunities to give paid work-based learning experience for youth and others with more limited relevant work experience.
Q: How optimistic are you that the White House and Congress will make this happen? What barriers/hesitancy need to be overcome for policy makers to move?

A: This is the season where the Congress will put its cards on the table—coming after the White House’s bold, $100B plan for evidence-based solutions and after bipartisan congressional efforts to draft separate workforce legislation. I am optimistic but not at all certain that Congress will enact larger and better solutions than in the past. But for that to be true, four things will need to happen.

First, Congress will need to enact a very robust investment needed to achieve crucial goals for scale and impact. Second, the key committees will need to draft strong policy details in a reconciliation package that reflect the needed evidence-based approach with a focus on employment and wage outcomes. This includes a focus on evidence-based sectoral training, strong local intermediaries, and a mechanism to empower individuals to fund participation in effective programs. Third, key leaders across the country will need to step up to call for this dual focus on scale and an evidence-based approach focused on outcomes. Fourth, governors/states, counties, and cities will need to step up—putting in some of their share of $350B in state and local economic aid—to address this issue, too. And a full range of stakeholders—employers, labor unions, community colleges, workforce and community organizations—also will need to step up.

This will require a recognition that this work is a team sport. That requires key stakeholders to work together with a focus on measurable outcomes—especially expanded and more equitable attainment of good jobs and better wages to help employers and workers alike drive and benefit from a strong, inclusive economic recovery.

Community college enrollment is looking flat this fall

With a number of states—Colorado, Michigan, and Mississippi—reporting fall enrollment, the general trend appears flat. That’s in line with what the American Association of Community Colleges is hearing, and it raises questions about whether the country will actually see a surge in workforce training.