Patty in the News

A lot has changed since 1998: the Internet bubble hadn’t yet popped; the housing bubble was still in its infancy; and unemployment was holding steady below 5 percent, an unimaginable level today.

One thing that hasn’t changed since then is the government job-training system. A bill to update that system, slated for a Senate committee vote next week, would take a giant leap away from the traditional, welfare-like approach of a government benefit program and toward a new business-oriented viewpoint. It is designed to force communities to figure out how to offer training to job candidates for openings that actually exist.

If it works, the measure could challenge the entire educational system—from kindergarten through adult training—to focus more closely on business sectors that have job growth. “When you were in high school, did anybody say, ‘When you get out of school, these are the places that are actually hiring’?  Nobody said that,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is a lead sponsor of the bill.

“If kids in high school know that there are going to be health care jobs available in their community, they start thinking in different terms about being successful in high school because there’s a job at the end of it,” Murray said in an interview with National Journal Daily.

There is so much talk on Capitol Hill these days about job creation and job destruction (depending on who is skewering whom) that it may be easy to miss Murray and her cadre of three other key Senate players, including two Republicans, who are trying to remedy the job-training system. The bill is a joint venture of Murray; Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; HELP ranking member Michael Enzi, R-Wyo.; and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.

The revised Workforce Investment Act has been written to bypass the partisan squabbles that have been the downfall of other legislation in the past year. Written by Republicans and Democrats, state and local workforce boards also have signed off on it. The measure has the benefit of flying under the radar of potential naysayers because it isn’t a spending bill—that part comes later—and it doesn’t touch on sensitive political topics like labor unions or unemployment insurance.

The updated system envisioned in the bill would organize job training around industry sectors that need workers. Training programs would be evaluated based on a common set of metrics, like job placement and retention rates. New measurements have been added as a nod to business needs—the number of job seekers that obtain an industry-recognized credential, for example, or the extent to which the training programs are a “business value.”

Senate passage for the measure looks promising, considering that Murray and Enzi have been working on it for two years. It’s unclear how the House will react, but its sponsors plan to milk the “jobs” talking point in pushing for it in the House. “It’s a win for everybody,” Murray said.

Still, Republicans who look askance at almost any domestic program will not want to endorse legislation that could be viewed as adding to the bureaucracy. The Government Accountability Office hasn’t helped the reputation of the existing job-training program, criticizing it for overlap and duplication. What’s more, the Labor Department isn’t high on the list of agencies that House Republicans want to empower in any capacity.

Even if the bill makes it through the legislative hurdles, the job-training program will face uphill battles in the congressional funding process. The program is funded at roughly $3 billion now, and it will be a struggle just to include that line item in the next appropriations fight. “That is a battle that I’m worried about, obviously, because if we have a high number of workers without the right skills for businesses, who need those skills,” Murray said. “[If] we don’t fund the programs, then we won’t meet the goals.”

Federal money for job-training programs has declined by 90 percent since 1980, while the workforce has grown by half, according to Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University. A job-training system that is “effectively starved of resources,” he said, will have a hard time doing what needs to be done—reaching out to local businesses and higher education—to boost workers’ skills.

“The success of those programs is mixed at best. Some of them work and some of them don’t, depending on who you’re looking at,” Holzer said. “For a lot of reasons, people have decided there’s no hope in that. I think that’s a mistake.”

The GAO said that the current job-training system is hard to evaluate because it works differently in different places. The Senate bill attempts to fix that, requiring one set of metrics for measuring all of the programs.

Now that it’s time to take the measure public, the bill’s drafters want to make sure people know it was a group effort. “The reauthorization we will bring to the [HELP] Committee next week responds to what we’ve heard from those on the ground to ensure the system meets the increased needs of job-seekers, employees, and employers,” Harkin said.

Ultimately, the sponsors are searching for ways to close the growing gap between the country’s unemployed population and the industries that continually say they need workers. With unemployment sticking stubbornly around 9 percent, it makes little sense that there are thousands of job openings in manufacturing or health care and not enough job seekers with the right skills.

- National Journal