Education is key to America’s workforce investment strategy

Education is key to America’s workforce investment strategy

By 2024, America will need 46.5 million new workers. This number, calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics looks at both replacement needs for retiring baby-boomers, and new jobs that don’t even exist today, but will tomorrow.

This challenge would be significant if all that was required was finding more than 46 million new people who wanted to work. But the challenge is larger because over 65 percent of all replacement jobs and over 85 percent of all new jobs will require some level of postsecondary education.

ADVERTISEMENT
My how things have changed. About 40 years ago, 40 percent of all education and training funds at the federal level went to workforce investment programs — often distributed through the federal Department of Labor. Most of these were funds were distributed as grants to states, workforce investment boards and similar activities. Today, only 6 percent of the federal education/training programs go to workforce investment.

 

The funding changes reflect a fundamental change in the workforce. Because most jobs today require some level of postsecondary education, the Higher Education Act has become our nation’s workforce investment strategy.

That’s the good news. The problem is that there is no strategy, just funding! Development of a comprehensive national policy for workforce development is imperative in order to effectively educate future workers which will enhance U.S. competitiveness, and ultimately, our nation’s bottom line.

As the Congress begins to consider reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) are trying to fix this problem. They have introduced the Expanding Education for America’s Workforce Act of 2017 (H.R. 4078) to modernize our higher education laws to help students learn the skills and training they need in order to fulfill our nation’s growing workforce needs.

The legislation includes important changes in federal policy that begin to create a strategy for higher education policy that is similar to the realities of today’s workforce.

First, the legislation creates Short-term Workforce Pell Grants for those adults who need to return to college, after a minimum of 10 years outside of education, to update their skills in order to obtain a job in today’s workplace. Consider the individual who is laid off after 20 years of work, or the mother seeking to return to the workforce after her children have grown. For those who are financially needy, this program provides them the access needed for short-term credential programs between eight and 12 weeks.

Second, the legislation makes clear that students without a high school degree will be eligible for financial aid in programs identified by any state or regional economy as part of their Career Pathways Program.

Third, this legislation calls for states, institutions of higher education, and sponsors of apprenticeship programs to develop the protocols that will establish academic credit for these programs. Such action will both enable new sources of funding for these programs through federal financial aid while also enabling the apprentice to continue their education beyond the apprenticeship if desired.

A recent study shows that students who transfer from one school to the next lose 43 percent of their academic credits. Imagine the inefficiency of having to redo almost half of what you have already learned in terms of financial cost to the student.

For this reason, the legislation requires that all similar level academic programs accredited by the same accreditor must be approved for transfer with other schools accredited by the same agency.

Now imagine a veteran who learned automotive mechanics or health care during their military service. Today, too many schools do not provide opportunity for such students to receive credit for the competencies they have achieved. The legislation directs the secretary to develop an appropriate process to both recognize and fund such competency-based programs.

The Expanding Education for America’s Workforce Act of 2017 (H.R. 4078) will not become law by itself. Rather, many of these initiatives seek to modernize the entire Higher Education Act. As such, they should serve as both the foundation for and the catalyst to revise the act in ways that serves today’s future workers. After all, it is the only workforce investment strategy advanced by the federal government.

Steve Gunderson is a former eight-term U.S. representative from Wisconsin and currently serves as president and CEO of the Career Education Colleges and Universities.