The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 21, 2017

Four lessons to help the new secretary of labor build a skilled workforce

March 22, 2017

President Trump promised on the campaign trail to save American jobs. Whether he can achieve that will depend on whether Alex Acosta, his labor secretary nominee, heeds the evidence on effective workforce programs.

While Trump has focused publicly on the role of keeping companies from exporting jobs, Acosta’s role will be to support training for workers so they can get the skills required for advanced manufacturing jobs. Today’s factory jobs require different kinds of skills than those of the past; a high school degree is not enough. Meanwhile, there is demand for computer, mathematics, and advanced problem solving skills. This will become even truer as companies incorporate new technologies.

If confirmed, Acosta will oversee programs aimed at preparing the nation’s workforce, most importantly the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the main law governing the nation’s workforce system, which passed with bipartisan support in 2014.

WIOA is designed to strengthen and improve our nation's public workforce system and help Americans, including youth and those with significant barriers to employment, access high-quality jobs and careers while helping employers hire and retain skilled workers. Through WIOA, jobseekers can receive basic and technical skills training, supportive services, and job placement, retention, and advancement services.

To effectively support WIOA implementation and help build a strong workforce, Acosta would be wise to rely on what we know about effective workforce development programs:

  • Partnership with industry is key. Successful workforce development programs and models must engage employers. Through collaboration, training providers can ensure their programs are providing participants with the right skills and that participants are connected to opportunities. Under WIOA, employers are required partners, involved in program administration at the state and local levels. The law outlines other critical roles for employers, such as providing input on program design and offering work experience opportunities, and includes methods to measure the workforce system’s effectiveness at engaging and meeting employers’ needs. The incoming secretary should support these partnerships and use the bully pulpit to encourage employer involvement in local workforce systems and programs.
  • Community colleges have an essential role to play in preparing the workforce. In 2014, public two-year colleges enrolled about 6.4 million students in programs and conferred 653,071 degrees and certificates. The federal government has invested in community colleges through several programs, including the US Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Community College and Career Training Grants (TAACCCT), which provided nearly $2 billion to community colleges to build their capacity to meet industry needs. Lessons are emerging from the evaluation of TAACCCT as to how community colleges can be most successful, and the labor secretary should draw from this research to support effective practice and implementation of WIOA.
  • Basic skills gaps are a barrier to development and credential attainment, but promising and proven models to close these gaps should be expanded and supported. Only 20 percent of students enrolled in two-year community college programs complete college within three years. One reason for low completion rates may be that nearly two-thirds of students arrive at college unprepared to do college-level work. Several strategies have shown promise in helping students gain basic skills while maintaining momentum toward a degree or training credential. WIOA aims to meet these jobseekers’ needs by encouraging implementation of tested models and by holding adult basic education programs accountable for employment outcomes. With programs overseen by the Departments of Labor and Education, continued coordination and program alignment across federal agencies will be critical.
  • Workforce development programs must consider participants’ other needs. To be successful in training, workers need support to address their basic needs. For example, some workers need child care while they are in school, in training, or on the job. Current child care subsidies are inadequate to meet the needs of those who need them, especially those in training, and quality care is in limited supply. The incoming labor secretary could work with Congress to support access to child care resources. WIOA has partnership at its center, and the secretary can encourage local areas to support the workers’ and employers’ skills needs through partnerships, including with child care providers.

Resources are needed to support effective programs that help workers develop in-demand skills. Current public investment in skill building is limited and has been declining over the past several decades and the President's proposed budget suggests even further cuts. Given limited resources, the new labor secretary must focus on his department’s important role to ensure training dollars meet workers’ and employers’ needs today and tomorrow.

Photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images.

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