Fight heats up over SKILLS Act, local organizations come out against changes to job training programs


Local elected officials, business leaders and workforce investment boards sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer expressing their concerns over provisions in H.R. 803, the SKILLS Act. The Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act, authored by Represenative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) is meant as an ‘update’ to the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA), a bi-partisan bill passed under President Clinton to induce business leaders to help train their local communities for job openings.

The United States Conference of Mayors (USCM), the National Association of Counties (NACo), the National League of Cities (NLC) and the National Association of Workforce Boards (NAWB) jointly authored the letter. The groups opposed provisions in H.R. 803 which undermine the important role of local stakeholders in the administration of workforce development activities and reduce access to education and training for our nation’s most vulnerable workers. The groups called on Congress to enact a bi-partisan workforce development bill this year.

WIA, passed with bi-partisan support during the Clinton administration, and essentially pulls together local groups including businesses, chambers of commerce, educational stakeholders, mayors and state officials through several federal programs and mandates to create job training programs that actually result in job placements. The bill created Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) that pull these stakeholders together at the local level and work on programs like job corps. Critics have long voiced opposition to federal mandates, and say that many of the career programs spend lots of money for little return. However, youth, and minority populations that often have significant barriers to entry in the job market use programs like job corps to find a pathway to work.

Like many bills that require reauthorization, WIA reform has been trapped in the congressional void of inaction for several cycles. The same group of stakeholders that authored the letter, have been pushing for reauthorization of the bill as it stands now, with some updates to reflect current economic realities, like the growing skills gap and the broad changes in the types of jobs offered since the bill was originally passed.

Under the proposed SKILLS Act, many of the programs authorized through WIA would be consolidated in favor of a more general fund with fewer federal mandates, reflecting the republican view of the bill and these programs in general. Representative Foxx brought the bill with republican support, which resulted in a boycott by congressional democrats last week. A group of democrats involved with committee work walked out of negotiations on the bill, saying they were blocked from critical discussions in an effort to rush the bill to the floor.

The bill is also opposed by the Obama administration. Changes included in the SKILLS Act give two thirds of board representation to businesses, which would take some seats away from local officials, and representatives for local employees. The provisions would also give those new, business infused boards significantly more control in how career training dollars are spent and loosens requirements overall for how they have to be used. States may also be able to eliminate programs all together, leaving municipalities to fend for themselves on job training issues.

In the letter, officials note that with those changes they can’t support the replacement of WIA with the SKILLS Act. “We cannot, however, support reauthorization that fails to secure the delicate governing balance currently crafted in WIA. Furthermore, we cannot support efforts which may reduce access to education and training for our nation’s most vulnerable workers by eliminating designated funding for disconnected youth, and permitting the use of critical WIA funding for purposes other than workforce development activities,” they write. The full text outlines individual provisions that the group is opposed to and offers recommendations on how to curb cost overhead.

Some business organizations are supporting the change including the National Association Of Manufacturers (NAM), and the US Chamber of Commerce, both known republican donors. The Chamber issued the following statement: “The [SKILLS Act] would repeal many ineffective and duplicative federal training and employment programs. This consolidation, when combined with additional state and local flexibility for the delivery of these services, would allow more adults and dislocated workers to more efficiently receive the services they need to not only find a job but also stay employed. The Chamber applauds provisions of the SKILLS Act that address this problem through a reservation of funding for training based on an analysis of the job needs of the local area.” If the Act goes forward as written, the analysis referenced here would include less input from local employees, educational organizations and state officials.