Modernizing and Investing in Workforce Development

By Larry Good and Earl Buford – Published March 2021 in Corporation for a Skilled WorkforceSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

This is the fourth report summary from the Better Employment and Training Strategies (BETS) taskforce that has developed policy recommendations to support the Biden-Harris administration and the 117th Congress in addressing the labor market impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the Authors
Larry Good is President & CEO of Corporation for a Skilled Workforce. Earl Buford is the incoming President of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Editor’s note: This paper is brimming with numerous suggestions related to expanding federal investments in workforce development on many different fronts. 

The pandemic has disrupted the workforce and exacerbated economic loss for millions of Americans, especially low-income female, Black, and Latinx individuals who have not earned a credential beyond high school. Over 40 years, their wages and economic mobility have declined. In addition, “there is a moral and economic imperative to address the impacts of systemic racism that have excluded workers of color from participating fully in our economy.”  

The nature of work continues to evolve quickly, mandating that workers build skills and obtain better access to lifelong learning opportunities. The federal government has a disappointing history of workforce development (WFD) policy spending over the past 20 years, and it needs to increase investments in labor market policies. “This means moving from a patchwork of semi-connected programs and services to building out the components of an integrated ecosystem that provides funding, supports, and information people need as they learn and work across their lives.”

Five Strategies for Building a Long-term and Effective WFD Ecosystem:

  1. “Build and Sustain Supports for Lifelong Iterations of Work and Learning” – Consistently improving ones work skills over a lifetime is an absolute necessity today. However, it’s difficult to discern the appropriate credentials and learning opportunities to pursue that can guarantee an upward career trajectory. “We lack a robust career navigation system that is accessible to all students, job seekers and workers through in-person and virtual offerings.” Moreover, there’s a dearth of expert career advisors and a lack of labor market information that supports career pathway decision making. There’s also a need for increasing workforce support in a variety of ways, including income and education support for dislocated workers; work and learn integration programs; apprenticeships; initiatives that modularize credentials; and programs that teach “foundational literacy, numeracy, financial literacy, and digital literacy skills essential for employment.”  The federal government needs to invest in all these efforts.
  2. “Finance Workforce Development Through a Co-Investment Model” – Develop workforce trust funds (WTFs) between government and industry that support WFD initiatives. WTFs would be “resourced through dedicated tax revenue from employers” that “could be targeted or limited/adjusted” to employers by “size, sector, or status,” as well as incentivized through other mechanisms. Other strategic suggestions include: 1) Creating Children Savings Accounts started at birth through a federally sponsored initial deposit of about $250 to $500. These would be like 529 college savings accounts that parents can contribute to incrementally. 2) Create federal workforce grants that “incent/encourage employers to engage and invest in worker education.” 3) Increase federal financial aid to include part-time students and working adults who are seeking short-term credentials, as well as by backing innovative state programs that support educating adults, and via WIOA training programs. 4) Blend “funding across multiple federal agencies into integrated grants to states and local agencies.”
  3. “Shift the Paradigm from Short-term Transactions to Longer-term Investments” – Federally funded workforce development programs are like healthcare emergency rooms – they provide urgent care in moments of crisis. What these programs need, however, is to “shift from a ‘remediation and recovery’ primary model to a ‘wellness and health’ approach.” There are several ways to do this. One is to “modify the metrics,” which involves the integration of “short-term credentials with existing educational data to provide more comprehensive information about outcomes.” To effectively accomplish this requires investments in data systems and expert staff across many WFD-related agencies. In the final analysis, the goal of every federal workforce program should be “modified to encourage a longer-term view for service strategies.” 
  4. “Challenge and Support Community Collaboratives to Deliver Results” – State and local WFD agencies often work in isolation, but when they collaborate and partner with each other and with employers, community-based organizations, and community foundations, they have greater impact. WFD agencies also compete against each for state and federal resources. The competitive dynamic should be changed through “sustained federal funding that supports/incents collaboration. . .” Federal policies can drive more collaboration via three strategies: 1) “Strengthen the role of workforce boards as conveners of community collaborates.” 2) “Charge local collaboratives with delivering high quality workforce services and outcomes,” and “correct the procurement bias against collaboration, shifting to multi-partner collaboratives . . .” 3) “Charge states with being catalysts of innovation.” 
  5. “Invest in R&D, Technology and Continuous Learning within the Workforce Development Ecosystem” – Federal staffing and funding need to be increased inside the Department of Labor and associated WFD agencies. Investments can enhance the skills of professionals responsible for assisting workers with navigating the complex labor market. Other investments that can enhance the WFD ecosystem include federal sponsorship of R&D projects, similar to the historically beneficial DARPA program. The R&D should also “flow continuously to states and local entities (such as workforce boards and community colleges) and not be limited to the handful who win nationally procured one-time grants.” Federal investments should also be made in workforce evaluation projects, as well as in the modernization of outdated workforce technology/data infrastructure systems.  

“It is imperative that the federal government do much more to promote workforce development both through the services it provides and through policies that incent and enable other participants in the system – employers, unions, education and training providers, state and local governments, and individuals, especially those most in danger of being left behind – to do their part.” 

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