04/11/2012 07:34 am ET Updated Jun 11, 2012

Taking a Sledgehammer to Job Training Programs

By Emma Oppenheim, Associate Director, Workforce Development Policy Initiatives, NCLR

Thirteen million Americans are unemployed while companies can't find workers to fill current job openings, because too many of America's workers don't have the right skills. America faces a skills crisis that threatens to deeply harm our economy, hurt our global competitiveness, and to impair our ability to match Americans with good jobs--especially Latinos, whose share of the labor market is set to increase from 15% in 2010 to 19% by 2020.

Tragically, this is a solvable problem. In decades past, our country built an impressive infrastructure to invest in American workers, enabling them to navigate previous eras of industrial change and economic dislocation. We created these programs because job training is a public good, just like public education and good roads; a well-prepared workforce is undeniably a key ingredient of a vibrant economy, and we as a society benefit when workforce development investments are systematic and strategic. Those systems remain well-equipped to tackle today's challenges, but are in need of some repairs.

Yet some in Washington are proposing, in the midst of this crisis, that we dismantle these federal job training programs and workforce investment systems. The "Workforce Investment Improvement Act of 2012" (H.R. 4297), recently introduced by Republican Representatives Foxx, McKeon, and Heck, would obliterate more than 20 workforce development programs currently serving adults, youth, dislocated workers, veterans, and more in favor of a one-size-fits-all program. This one-room classroom approach would virtually ensure that workforce programs focus only on the immediate job-matching needs of workers and businesses, and ignore our country's severe long-term worker preparation challenges.

Make no mistake: proposals to consolidate workforce programs in the name of reducing the public sector's role would leave Latino workers--not to mention veterans, the disabled, and other groups in need specialized services--stuck in low-skill and low-wage jobs. These proposals ignore the job openings going unfilled, ignore the industries unable to take new products to market, and ignore the American workers who, with the right investments, could make our economy hum.

Of course, no one disagrees that our workforce investment system needs an overhaul. NCLR and its allies have been calling for the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act for nearly a decade now, and many good fixes are reflected in the "Workforce Investment Act of 2012" (H.R. 4227), recently introduced by Democratic Representatives Tierney, Hinojosa, and Miller. The bill emphasizes coordination among key partners such as adult education and community colleges, encourages programs to better serve workers with greater needs such as those with limited basic education and English skills, and helps more workers gain industry-recognized post-secondary credentials, ensuring that programs not only connect workers to jobs but truly add value to our economy.

If those hoping to shrink the government's footprint want to do so at the expense of America's workers and at the risk of our future economic prosperity, they should know that Latinos--the fastest growing segment of the population and the community that stands to lose the most in consolidated workforce programs--are watching. Latino workers will watch to see if these proposals close the skills gap, heal our economy, and put America's workers into good jobs.

This was first posted to the NCLR Blog.