On Tuesday, April 9, House lawmakers passed the bipartisan H.R.6655 A Stronger Workforce for America Act (ASWA), introduced by Virginia Foxx (R–NC) and Bobby Scott (D–VA). The final vote was 378–26, with 26 abstentions. The bill will now go to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee for consideration. If passed, the bill’s reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) will fund the WIOA system through 2030.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act—the primary legislation that coordinates all workforce development efforts at the federal level—was originally passed in 2014, under the Obama administration, replacing the Workforce Investment ACT (WIA) of 1998. Of the $5 billion allocated for WIOA programming each year, about $3 billion is directed to state and local workforce boards. Boards use those funds to support workforce training and job placement services in brick-and-mortar “One Stop” centers that house representatives from all WIOA-required programs as well as other core partners. Intended to provide the states with increased flexibility in the creation of workforce programs to meet local labor market needs and shift the focus of workforce training to be on young people (“opportunity youth”), WIOA has instead become mostly employer-driven, with programs that benefit companies yet provide very few long-term gains for worker-participants.

WIOA has become mostly employer-driven, with programs that benefit companies yet provide very few long-term gains for worker-participants.

WIOA’s poor program outcomes are largely driven by five factors: (1) high administrative hurdles for both employers and job-seekers trying to participate; (2) insufficient funding for participants; (3) lack of program alignment with the goals of state and local economic development agencies; (4) low standards for employer partners; and (5) meaningless performance measures to assess impact. As a result, the program has been paralyzed by bureaucracy (the average state WIOA plan is approximately 600 pages) and hamstrung by low funding ceilings ($5,000 per participant) that do not provide workers seeking training with adequate time or instruction to become competitive candidates for skilled positions. The potential to leverage workforce development efforts to not only drive economic growth for the states but also increase socioeconomic mobility for workers has consistently been squandered by a lack of collaboration with state and local economic development agencies as well as a reliance on the participation of employers that pay extremely low wages and offer very few pathways to professional advancement. These staggering program deficiencies continue to be cloaked by performance measures (such as speed to placement) that do nothing to assess the program’s success at creating long-term positive outcomes for job seekers or a qualified talent pool for employers.

The changes detailed in ASWA are largely administrative in nature, and are not positioned to address any of the shortcomings listed above. Examples of ASWA’s changes include definition adjustments (one of the better instances is replacement of the anachronistic term “offender” with “justice involved individual”) and minor changes to the timeframes at which participant outcomes are gathered in order to assess impact (since most of the criteria have already been shown to be ineffective measures of long-term gains, modifications to the cadence of data collection are unlikely to have any impact). Among the more potentially helpful changes is the elimination of the requirement that states submit an updated WIOA plan to the U.S. Department of Labor at the two-year mark; the creation of a state ability to establish a Critical Industry Skills Fund; and the use of real-time labor market data to assess employer and worker needs and opportunities.

Any minor improvements secured through these changes, however, are at risk of being overshadowed by the addition of new entities to the Eligible Training Provider List (ETPL), including online providers, providers of entrepreneurial skills development programs, Industry Sector Partnerships, and groups of employers or trade associations. Education and workforce efforts are already plagued by providers that charge high fees in exchange for training or credentials that do not improve a student’s labor market prospects, and widening the pool of eligibility without providing deeper protections is likely to further exacerbate the issue.

There are several legislative changes the Senate could build into ASWA to improve WIOA’s impact, beginning with higher standards for employer partners, such as ensuring that a minimum of 50 percent of training dollars are focused on employers that meet specific wage standards (for example, 75 percent of the region’s average annual wage). Another important change would be the provision of stipends to participants, which would allow training-seekers to easily meet key needs (transportation, rent, food, child care, and so on) while in training. A third improvement would be alterations to the composition of state and local workforce boards to increase responsiveness to worker needs by mandating the inclusion of educational partners from K–12 schools, community colleges, and community-based organizations, as well as at least one member of the public. Lastly, prioritizing earnings as the main performance metric instead of activity (people trained, job placements, short-term retention, and so on) would ensure that programs are assessed based on their ability to drive meaningful gains for workers. (The Century Foundation submitted a list of these suggested changes and their supporting rationale to Congress last November.)

While at face value it is encouraging to see bipartisan collaboration on the workforce training front, the lack of meaningful change indicates that lawmakers may have traded policy impact for the positive optics of passing legislation in a paralyzed Congress. To effectively address the nation’s workforce problems, lawmakers will need to focus on measures to improve key issues such as labor force participation and wage gains (disaggregated by race and gender), and be willing to make legislative changes that reduce red tape, provide more funding and support for job seekers, and take a hard line against employers using WIOA services and funding to churn workers into low-quality jobs.