The following editorial appeared Monday in the Washington Post:
Improving job training and workforce development are on everyone's to-do list for the U.S. economy. But the federal government has spent decades - and many billions of dollars - without ever quite achieving consistently effective policy.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office report identified 47 different, often overlapping, federal programs that purport to prepare people for employment, at an annual cost of $18 billion. Yet little is known about the effectiveness of most programs, the report said.
Indeed, some critics, such as the libertarian Cato Institute, question the need for federally subsidized job training and job-search assistance in an age of online want ads and distance-learning. For all their free-market enthusiasm, the Republicans who control the House of Representatives do not embrace that view and passed a sweeping overhaul of the biggest federal workforce programs.
The SKILLS Act, as the measure is known, takes federal funding streams previously dedicated to various categories of workers - such as veterans - and combines them into a block grant that states may deploy according to their own plans, subject to prior Labor Department approval. The bill authorizes $6.2 billion per year through 2018 for this "Workforce Investment Fund."
Insofar as it reduces administrative overhead and bureaucratic mandates, the bill could improve the system.
Opponents, including the Obama administration and House Democrats, insist that vulnerable, hard-to-employ populations will be shortchanged if Congress eliminates funding streams dedicated to them. The SKILLS Act at least addresses this concern by requiring states to plan for the needs of specific populations and by funding veterans-employment specialists at the one-stop centers.
Democrats are pushing their own bill, which includes increased support for programs that prepare workers for specific jobs in a local industry.
President Obama has called for streamlining job training, but he hasn't spent much political capital on the issue. Finding a bipartisan fix for rickety federal workforce programs won't be easy. Without presidential engagement, it won't be possible.