The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 16, 2013

What are the most promising ways to train and employ "starvation"-wage Americans?

August 16, 2013

Alongside demands for civil and voting rights, one of the goals of the 1963 March on Washington served as a call to help the unemployed and underpaid find and keep good-paying jobs. John Lewis’s speech at the march reminds us of the challenges that still exist for low-income Americans struggling to find work: “We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. For they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all.”

Fifty years later, the federal workforce development system spends about $18 billion a year training workers and assisting in the job-search process. But does it really fill the need?

History of workforce legislation. In the early 1960s, just before the March on Washington, Congress passed legislation to create an early version of today’s workforce development system. Over the next 30 years, the system grew, targeting programs to low-income adults and youth, especially through public service employment and training opportunities that built job skills. Funding levels for workforce development have stagnated since 1998’s Workforce Investment Act (WIA), however, and programs focus less on serving low-income adults.

Workforce development system responds to the 2008 recession. We learned in the aftermath of the Great Recession that the workforce development system can still respond effectively to the needs of American workers when they lose their jobs. Funding from the Recovery Act allowed the system to ramp up its staffing, technology, and training options to serve millions of unemployed workers coming through their doors. However, as funding reverts to pre-recession levels, it has become a challenge for the workforce development system to serve those who remain unemployed or who continue to lack the education and skills to succeed in the labor market.

Recommendations for WIA reauthorization. As we look to WIA’s reauthorization, there are five key ways the federal workforce development system can support low-income adults and youth.

  1.      Design education and training programs that offer career pathways for in-demand occupations and that tie skill building and credential attainment with ongoing support and flexible training options. Traditional education and training programs—which often require semester-long courses and in-person classroom time and only offer a credential upon completion—typically do not consider the challenges low-income workers face.
  2.     Ensure that training opportunities incorporate work-based learning opportunities, including internships, on-the-job training, and apprenticeships. There’s nothing like real work experience to reinforce classroom learning. And employers like to see that a candidate has experience on the job.
  3.      Encourage strong links to the business community. It’s incredibly important to know what skills employers demand to counsel job seekers and design strong training programs. Using customized and industry-focused training strategies, for example, directly addresses employers’ skill needs. We also need to work with employers to see the value in giving workers—who may have entry-level skills, lack experience, or face discrimination—a chance to succeed.
  4.    Better connect systems that serve low-income workers and families. Modernizing workforce, education, and welfare systems through technology upgrades, data sharing, and streamlined eligibility determinations could allow workforce development professionals and others to coordinate services for low-income workers as they aim to improve their skills or work experience.
  5.    Improve the availability of information and counseling on education and training programs to guide low-income students on career choices. Low-income students, especially those who did not enter postsecondary education or training right after high school, need extra help and good information to make smart choices about training that will help them get a job, the quality and cost of the training offered, and how graduates of the program fare.

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