Modernizing Job Training for the 21st Century
November 19, 2016
Signed into law by President Obama in 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) is the most significant workforce development legislation since the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), enacted in 1998. On July 30, 2016, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education issued the Final Rules that will implement WIOA, crafting America’s most flexible and promising national workforce development system to date.
By Neil Cholli, C’16
Before discussing the Final Rules, let’s first take a look at the legislative language. At a first glance, it is difficult to discern the major differences between WIOA and WIA. The majority of the job services, requirements, and management structure remain fundamentally the same across both sets of laws. So what has really changed in the 18 years between WIA and WIOA? Inspecting the details of WIOA reveals two crucial reforms since its 1998 counterpart: service delivery and accountability. The implications of these changes—augmented by the Final Rules—are enormous, affecting the management of $10 billion of annual funding for employment services offered by over 2,400 American Job Centers to help more than 20 million Americans in need. 
First, under WIA, there was a hierarchical service delivery system of employment services including “core services” (basic job search and placement assistance), “intensive services” (comprehensive skills assessment and career guidance) and “training services” (occupational training, on-the-job training, educational services). Unemployed individuals were universally offered “core” services, but could only access the “intensive” and “training” tiers if they were deemed eligible by American Job Center managers. Recognizing the challenges of meeting unemployed Americans’ individualized needs, WIOA collapses “core” and “intensive” services under the catch-all category “career services.” Moreover, WIOA encourages the most effective services that help lift individuals the most—like employer-demanded and credential-bearing training programs—to be spread to more American Job Centers around the country. That way, people looking for work or retraining won’t need to travel long distances to find an American Job Center that will offer them the hard skills training and certifications they need to help them be competitive in our modern labor market.
WIOA’s written law also improves accountability measures within the workforce development system. First, it empowers state agencies to develop statewide strategic plans and standards that their local workforce development managers will need to uphold, and to periodically assess the progress of these plans and their local implementation. Second, it standardizes a set of common performance measures for all adults and children receiving workforce and educational services. In this way, WIOA also brings accountability measures across state lines by placing statewide plans and their outcomes against one another. Third, it expands the data that’s recorded to track performance metrics. Before, American Job Center managers only needed to record certain metrics—depending on whether individuals received “core,” “intensive,” and “training” services—making data crunching, analysis, and evaluation more problematic tasks for researchers. Now, WIOA ensures that the same data will be recorded for all individuals that walk through any American Job Center’s doors.
While WIOA’s written law already presents significant revisions to WIA, the Final Rules put forth by the Departments of Labor and Education this past summer push service delivery and accountability measures to whole new levels. On the service delivery end, the Final Rules expand employer-driven training programs offered to adults by emphasizing the incorporation of apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and customized programs in more American Job Centers. They also call for a more seamless integration of educational and vocational programs within the training-to-employment pipeline. Not only do these measures help American Job Centers live up to their maxim as “one-stop centers,” but the diversity of programs would also allow job-seekers—particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who need more flexible options—to learn the hard-skills needed to succeed in their new job.
The Departments of Labor and Education’s Joint Rules also bolster WIOA’s accountability measures by strengthening engagement with a sector that is crucial—yet sometimes overlooked—in the workforce development space: employers. Model job training programs in local cities, such as our very own West Philadelphia Skills Initiative based in University City, have underscored the efficacy of holding employer needs as high as those in need. As President Obama remarked, it’s crucial to develop a system that “trains our workers first based on what employers are telling us they’re hiring for… so that we’re creating a pipeline into jobs that are actually out there.” In particular, the Rules introduce new performance indicators that will measure how effectively employers have been served by the training programs. This, coupled with longitudinal employment retention metrics, will give policymakers a better understanding of which interventions work and which ones need to be improved.
WIOA and its Final Rules represent key steps in modernizing the delivery and accountability of job placement and career training services for Americans who need an extra hand. Given that the Final Rules have only recently gone into effect, only time (and proper empirical analysis) can tell whether WIOA and its Final Rules will significantly improve our country’s workforce development system. Regardless, the Final Rules highlight the way in which the regulatory process can hone in the impact of a piece of legislation to deliver an even more promising social policy program.
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