The District of Columbia's economy is thriving, but not all residents benefit from the boom in development and the disparities are staggering. Over 60,000 District residents lack a high school diploma or equivalent degree, a significant barrier to economic security. And even more lack basic skills despite graduating from high school. In a few years, three-quarters of all jobs in D.C. will require some postsecondary education. Yet many youth and adults in D.C. are not qualified for these positions, and many don't even read at the level required to access training programs.
Every District resident deserves a family-supporting job with career opportunities. The D.C. workforce system must invest strategically in our lower-skilled residents and better target the needs of District employers. We need a new paradigm.
A "career pathways framework" is a demonstrated approach to workforce development which connects progressive levels of education, training and services with clear entry points, milestones, and credentialing leading toward long-term career goals. It differs from our current fragmented system, in which the District funds basic education programs that may not be designed to help learners get started in a career; job training programs that may not prepare participants to earn industry-recognized credentials; GED classes that may leave students unprepared to enter college. The career pathways framework supports long term success for youth and adults, including those without a high school credential, the long-time unemployed, and others with barriers to employment.
The economic benefits of preparing D.C. workers for relevant, productive careers are numerous, including increased contributions to the local economy, reductions in the need for public assistance, better health outcomes for their families, and even greater educational achievement for their children.
The District's new administration and Council are uniquely poised to re-orient our current structures to a career pathway system. With a commitment from District leadership, it is possible for all D.C. residents currently enrolled in education or workforce programs to have access to a career pathway by 2020.
Changes at the federal level serve as the incentive for change. The current framework is based on the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), passed in 1998 to set federal expectations for state and local workforce systems, establish comprehensive "one-stop" job centers, and establish joint business and government oversight of state and local workforce investments through workforce investment boards. WIA was finally modernized and reauthorized as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in July of 2014.
WIOA places a high priority on upskilling youth and adults through a career pathways approach. This means not only orienting training and education programs toward industry credentials, it means accelerating learning by integrating basic skill and career training, paying as much attention to the transition between programs and systems as we currently do to programs alone, and providing supports and services necessary to assist residents as they work toward higher earning potential.
WIOA creates a tremendous opportunity for state and local governments to maximize the effectiveness of existing job training systems. The District government should seize this opportunity, and quickly. WIOA provisions will go into effect July 1, 2015. Jurisdictions and providers will be accountable to rigorous new performance standards in July 2016.
The District is in a better position than ever to take advantage of the opportunities created by WIOA.
D.C.'s Workforce Investment Council (WIC), which serves as both the state and local workforce investment board, is poised to provide leadership. The WIC's role is to ensure compliance with federal and local law, engage employers, convene government and private stakeholders, and provide coordination and oversight to the workforce system. The staff and members of the WIC are subject matter experts from government, business, labor and nonprofit sectors. Under the WIC, an Adult Career Pathways Task Force was mandated by DC Council in 2014 to research and recommend best practices for a strategic career pathways approach in the District.
Strong leadership from the WIC, and support from its public and private partners, has helped the District take its workforce system to a higher level, and the WIC must be empowered and supported to keep up the momentum.
A new policy brief from a coalition of local experts, Charting the Course: An Opportunity to Improve Workforce Development in DC, argues that a strong workforce development system is essential to a successful economic development strategy. But,
The District is at a crossroads. There are enough elements in place to move our workforce development system to the next level, but doing so will require strong leadership from Mayor and Council to both retain the gains we've made and to take us forward.
The document offers a series of recommendations for taking the system forward. If fully implemented, the recommendations would result in a career pathways system that:
• aligns agencies and funding sources, and creates strategic connections between programs;
• operates in a culture of quality, performance and accountability;
• is driven by the needs and expectations of area employers;
• leverages integrated data systems to measure success, identify gaps, track clients across programs, and allow more informed oversight; and
• is supported with appropriate resources, including establishment of the Career Pathways Innovation Fund to help plan, pilot, and scale up programs and practices recommended by the Adult Career Pathways Task Force.
D.C needs to embrace this new paradigm for our workforce system and we are at a timely moment to make it a reality.