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Workforce Policy Playing Catch Up

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Ten years ago, not long after the first missed deadline for the 2003 reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), came the publication of Workforce Intermediaries for the 21st Century -- a survey volume that touched on the emerging innovation of sector-based workforce intermediaries. So, it's ironic that a decade later, in the very month when Congress' renewal of WIA may finally be achieved, we see the release of the second survey book on sector-based partnerships by some of the same authors.

Connecting People to Work: Workforce Intermediaries and Sector Strategies captures the expansion, diversification and lessons learned by the sector field over the past decade. As such, it makes a pretty strong case for why such practices should have been informing Washington's thinking all along about how federal programs could be more effectively training un and under-employed people while involving more local employers in the address of their industry-wide skill gaps.

Thankfully, even without reading the book, some policymakers in D.C. have already figured this out -- based on what they had heard over the years from some of the very partnerships featured in this publication. That is one of the reasons we've recently seen a host of initiatives from the Obama Administration that have embraced the sector partnership model in the re-training of the long-term unemployed, both in the structure of remaining grant funding for our nation's community colleges and in improving employer engagement across all the policies subject to Vice President Biden's pending cross-agency review of federal job training programs.

But Connecting People to Work also reflects on why it has taken Washington so long to get to this point, and why even now -- even in the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) that may soon pass Congress -- federal policymakers have resisted making sector strategies the default approach to our nation's workforce development investments. In the chapter "Will Workforce Policy Finally Catch Up to Sector Practice?" I offer some possible explanations as to why this has been the case based on observations from over 15 years of working on these issues in D.C. and in the states.

As I explain in the chapter, some of it was rooted in early misunderstandings by workforce reformers -- including those who wrote the original WIA -- of the sector partnership field and what it could offer to the still fledging WIA system. Admittedly, there were missteps and miscommunications by sector innovators during that same time period that likewise contributed to those early disconnects.

Later challenges arose after Congress repeatedly failed to reauthorize WIA, and the Bush Administration decided to move forward with its own industry-focused investments in workforce training, some of which were sectoral in nature. Some in Congress were not pleased with the Administration's new initiatives, particularly when they were presented as better alternatives to the Congressionally authorized workforce system. The irony is that today, under very different circumstances, we have seen some of the same tensions on Capitol Hill as it watches the Obama Administration move forward with its "we can't wait for Congress" approach to workforce development reform, which has included new focus on sector strategies.

Still, this could be a good summer for the sector field. While not perfect, the new WIOA bill is a definite improvement on current law. It doesn't adopt the full-scale sector partnership reforms proposed by the bipartisan SECTORS Act, but WIOA would require local areas to "convene, use or implement" sector partnerships in their WIA plans. And with the Administration's new emphasis on job-driven training and employer engagement, sector partnership strategies could see a jump in state adoption comparable to what we saw ten years ago -- particularly if states see some of their discretionary funding restored after recent federal cuts. Of course, that won't happen automatically without continued pushing from sector innovators. And hopefully federal and state policymakers will be reading Connecting People to Work to learn from the lessons of the past decade in choosing to implement such policies.

This post is by Andy Van Kleunen, Executive Director of the National Skills Coalition. The blog is part of a special blog series inspired by the release of the edited volume, "Connecting People to Work: Workforce Intermediaries and Sector Strategies" and focused on the question: what do we know about what works in connecting people to work? In the coming weeks, the blog series will include perspectives from several authors featured in the book, "Connecting People to Work."