THE BLOG
11/05/2014 07:56 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

You Did Your Part, Now Congress Must Do Theirs

Hisham Ibrahim via Getty Images

Now that the suspense and tumult of the midterm elections are over, Americans are ready for Congress to get to work. These leaders -- with the support and urging of employers, nonprofit partners, educational institutions, and citizens of all stripes -- have a fresh start to achieve significant progress on the most pressing issues facing the United States today: strengthening the economy, expanding upward mobility and restoring the American Dream to the rising generation. But they will have to work together to accomplish these urgent goals.

We know they can do this, because it actually happened last year during one of the most divisive Congresses in recent memory, though you likely didn't hear about it.

After over a decade of delay and political posturing, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed, by overwhelming margins, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), an updated version of the country's largest job skills program, the Workforce Investment Act. This bipartisan victory in July stands as one of the biggest accomplishments of the outgoing Congress. It serves as a powerful example of what can be accomplished when Democrats and Republicans work together to help more Americans, particularly youth, get the education, skills and job training they need to embark on 21st century careers.

WIOA will go a long way to putting more teens and young adults on track to meaningful education and career pathways - a goal that benefits all of us. The reauthorization of the $3 billion program means that millions of Americans will have access to updated, improved skills training and workforce development activities, including youth at risk for dropping out of high school.

But was WIOA a once in this decade chance to push partisan bickering aside? Fortunately, the 114th Congress doesn't need to look far for a bill that enjoys similar bipartisan support and could serve as an announcement to the American people that they are committed to getting the people's work done. The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which sends $1 billion a year to states to support career and technical programs, is currently waiting for Congress to act. These programs are critically important to helping millions of Americans embark on meaningful careers in growing industries and earn family-sustaining wages in so-called "middle-skill jobs" that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor's degree.

Currently, the United States is on track to fall short by at least three million of these skilled workers by 2018. Already, it's a crisis for companies, with 39 percent of employers complaining they can't find enough qualified workers for existing jobs. These are good jobs. In fact, some workers with two-year degrees in science, technology, engineering and math subjects have greater lifetime earnings than four-year college graduates in many other careers, according to Georgetown's Center for Education and the Workforce.

The global economy demands that American workers have some form of postsecondary degree or industry-recognized credential. But we are not preparing enough students to meet the demands for middle-skill and high-skilled jobs. High-quality career and technical education can provide students with opportunities for career awareness and preparation by providing them with the academic and technical skills they need to succeed.

We don't have a moment to lose. With double-digit youth unemployment and 5.6 million teens and young adults currently disconnected from school and work, we must work together to help young Americans secure a foothold on the path to middle class security and prosperity.

Opportunity Nation's diverse coalition supports the reauthorization of Perkins as do hundreds of employers, nonprofits, community colleges and others across the country. The success of WIOA gives reason to believe that even in today's fractured political environment, our political leaders can hit a restart button in 2015, and build upon the bipartisanship they displayed last summer.

Momentum has been building to reauthorize Perkins, across public, private and nonprofit sectors and, crucially, among elected officials of both parties. Let's help push this critical bill over the finish line and urge the 114th Congress to work together and update career and technical education this year.

No more excuses that things can't get done in Washington. We are getting a fresh start in January. Let's use it to update career and technical education. America's teens and young adults are counting on it.

Russell Krumnow is managing director of Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan, cross-sector, national campaign made up of more than 300 nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions, faith-based and community organizations, and individuals all working together to expand economic mobility and close the opportunity gap in America.