The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce ended 2023 with some tidings of potential joy for America’s workforce by approving two proposed bills on a strong bipartisan basis. Committee approval in one chamber is just a start, of course, but bipartisanship in the current House is a good sign.
A Stronger Workforce for America Act, which updates workforce development programs, was approved by a vote of 44 to 1. And a bill to expand Pell grants to pay for short-term career training was okayed 37 to 8.
Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC) declared that “[These bills] will broaden the precarious education tightrope to a true pipeline in which many paths can lead to a rewarding career. I’d like to thank the Ranking Member [Democrat Bobby Scott of Virginia] and his staff for working with us on these bills. I think they are stronger pieces of legislation because of our bipartisan work.”
The Workforce Act renews the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the federal government’s primary workforce training program. Here are four highlights.
Upgrade worker skills. The bill creates a new spending minimum that requires local workforce boards to spend at least 50 percent of the adult and dislocated worker funds they receive for training. This would be provided through individual training accounts and on-the-job learning.
Strengthen career pathways. The bill places greater emphasis on youth career pathways programs; codifies a program that provides access to pathway programs that help individuals released from incarceration get a job; and enhances community college pathways programs, especially those using competency-based assessments and that award credit for prior learning.
Respond to employer needs. The bill creates a Critical Industry Skills Fund to provide partial reimbursement to employers and other organizations for expenses incurred in upskilling workers in critical industries. Each state governor will determine that list, with reimbursement occurring after workers are employed.
Improve program quality and outcomes. The bill directs training dollars to evidence-based programs, akin to the definition of evidence-based that’s used in the K-12 Every Student Succeeds Act. Every state is required to analyze how its workforce development activities align with these four levels of evidence.
The Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act revises who is eligible to receive Pell grants, which aid post-high-school students with exceptional financial need and who want further training and education in a postsecondary institution. Current Pell grants are awarded for academic courses that meet for a minimum of fifteen weeks (with the specifics spelled out in current law). This definition eliminates short-term education and workforce training and credential programs.
The Committee bill would change this eligibility definition and award Pell grants to individuals who take programs that meet between eight and fifteen weeks. It would also create a quality assurance system to oversee this new program, including state workforce boards, the U.S. Department of Education, and federally recognized higher education accrediting agencies. The Department of Education would have primary responsibility for verifying that programs have adequate completion and job placement rates.
What are the prospects for these two measures?
Both bills are first steps in a long process that includes consideration by the full House and then the Senate. And there’s an election in the way. “[T]he closer we get to the November 2024 election is one day further away from reaching consensus on anything,” says Alison Griffin, senior vice president at Whiteboard Advisors and former policy advisor to the House education committee.
Furthermore, the Senate has its view on these issues. For example, the Senate has a bipartisan bill called the JOBS Act, or Jumpstart Our Businesses by Support Students Act, that is awaiting consideration by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. It has similar provisions to the Workforce Pell Act. But it also has differences, like excluding for-profit training programs, which the House bill allows.
Moreover, not all the higher education and workforce interest groups agree on elements of the two House Committee proposals. For example, a smattering of headlines from publications covering these proposals range from “a massive step forward” to “too fast and too new,” with one summarizing the predicament as a “nothingburger or a good first step?”
One example of diverging views comes from the center-left Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), which asserts that the proposed Workforce Pell Act does not “go far enough.” PPI proposes creating a single higher education grant, “Super Pell,” that would be more generous than current proposals, easier to access, and financed by consolidating existing tax incentives and higher education spending programs into one program. Qualifying programs would not have to meet the proposed eight-week requirement found in the House bill.
Some would contend that any Congressional step toward legislative bipartisanship—let alone two steps—is welcome news. And it is. But while the end of 2023 brought some glad tidings of great joy for America’s workforce from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, it is too early to raise a toast celebrating what might happen in 2024.