As skilled workers find themselves on the front lines of the national response to COVID-19, Skilled America talks to manufacturers Traci Tapani and Mike Tamasi about how their companies have adapted in the age of social distancing, how they've shifted production to contribute to the fight against the pandemic, and what they think about the sudden attention their essential work has brought on the industry.
The US Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) last Friday issued Program Memorandum OCTAE 20-3, titled Adult Education and Family Literacy Act and COVID-19 – Frequently Asked Questions.
The memorandum was sent to state directors of adult education and is intended to inform both states and local adult education providers in the field. There are more than 2,200 such providers funded under the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, also known as Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). These providers serve roughly 1.5 million American adults each year via adult basic education, high school equivalency, and English language classes.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many adult education programs have moved classes online, temporarily closed physical offices, rapidly prepared their staff and learners to use new digital tools, and dramatically shifted their ways of doing business. The new guidance will equip state and local adult education leaders to continue their work with much-needed assurances from federal partners.
New guidance provides flexibility, clarity for adult educators
The new memorandum answers a number of questions submitted by adult educators to OCTAE in recent weeks. Topics covered include WIOA performance reporting, performance negotiations, states’ upcoming competitions to award local provider contracts, distance learning requirements, testing protocols, and policies regarding costs covered.
In summary, the guidance assures states that:
- The US Departments of Education and Labor will not make any determinations of performance success or failure based on data from the current Program Year 2019 (ending June 30, 2020).
- WIOA performance negotiations between OCTAE and the states are expected to continue as scheduled, though the Department will be flexible in scheduling meetings with states given that many state officials have pressing responsibilities as part of COVID-19 response efforts.
- States that had previously issued Requests for Proposals anticipating that they would award new local provider contracts for the year beginning July 1, 2020 are permitted to adjust their planned process. In particular, they may instead 1) suspend their FY2020 competitions for a one-year period and simply extend their current providers’ grants, OR 2) adjust competition deadlines, delaying the awarding of new grants until a later date and extending current providers’ contracts in the meantime. In either case, states must do their best to ensure that any changes in their competition plans do not result in a gap in service delivery for adult learners.
- States can demonstrate that adult education distance learning participants have achieved the required minimum 12 hours of “actual contact” in several ways. Specifically, the required contact hours can be accrued through telephone, video, teleconference, or online communication, where participant and program staff can interact and through which participant identity is verifiable. (This will help providers to ensure that adult learners in programs that have newly converted to a distance learning format can be counted for performance reporting purposes.)
- States now have increased flexibility in conducting pre/post tests for adult education participants. These tests are used by providers to demonstrate learning gains and meet WIOA performance requirements. Typically, these tests must be conducted in person. The new guidance affirms that states may choose to develop procedures to implement virtual test proctoring, with appropriate test security measures.
The guidance also provided detailed information about how states can record distance learning activities for adult learners via the National Reporting System, and provided information on how states might want to use the Measurable Skill Gain measure to demonstrate performance outcomes.
Learn more about each of these elements in the full memorandum.
On March 26th the Senate voted on a third stimulus package to address the current CoVid-19 pandemic and its economic impact.
The bill included important provisions for workers who have lost their jobs – federal support for expanded “Pandemic unemployment insurance” that would add an extra $600 a week to unemployment insurance payments and $345 million in national grants to support activities to serve dislocated workers. It also included access to loans for businesses – and nonprofits – to cover payroll costs during the economic downturn and federal support for layoff aversion strategies like job sharing.
It lacked, however, the vision of a comprehensive national strategy to support workers’ ability to reenter the workforce after job loss. The bill also doesn’t do enough to empower businesses to rapidly upskill and reskill workers to respond to immediate workforce needs in healthcare, manufacturing or transportation, distribution, and logistics industries.
Bipartisan agreement on a nearly $2 trillion package to support workers and businesses is an undeniable win in time of national and international crisis. This crisis has stress-tested our unemployment, workforce, and education systems, however, and the package fails to address the woefully inadequate investment and support we provide workers once they lose their jobs and on their path to reemployment in industries in which businesses need workers today.
This package is the third in a series of stimulus packages over the past couple of weeks. Earlier versions provided federal support for extended Unemployment Insurance benefits, paid sick leave for workers, and waived time restrictions on access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for certain individuals.
As we look to an undeniably necessary fourth stimulus package, Congress and the administration should use that opportunity to reach bipartisan agreement on a bill that supports a national system with training, income, and healthcare supports for workers who lose their jobs. The next package must also address industry’s immediate needs so that our businesses, workers, and communities aren’t left waiting for a Congressional response that may be too little too late.
On March 19th, National Skills Coalition sent a letter to Congressional leadership with comprehensive recommendations for any stimulus package that would address needs of workers, businesses, and communities. On March 21, NSC along with more than 30 other national organizations sent a letter to Congressional leadership calling for vital investments in workforce programming as part of any response to CoVid-19 and its economic impacts. We look forward to continuing this work with our network of practitioners and businesses and with national partners to elevate the critical role workforce training plays in preparing workers with skills necessary to respond to the immediate crisis and its economic impact.
We will release additional analysis in the coming days of where policymakers should look to rectify these challenges as part of a fourth stimulus package.
What’s included in the third stimulus package
1. Supplemental appropriations for Dislocated Worker National Reserve (DWNR) Funds: The bill includes $345 million in new funding for the DWNR; national grants to support training and career services for workers who have lost their jobs due to CoVid-19. This investment will be critical to states’ ability to serve dislocated workers but is woefully inadequate to respond to the actual level of needs businesses and workers face today.
In the 2009 stimulus package, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), Congress invested $1.25 billion in formula dollars to states to support dislocated worker activities, combined with an additional nearly $3 billion in other workforce funding streams. During that economic downturn, the workforce system experienced a 234 percent increase in the number of Americans seeking reemployment and training services and the system served more than 8 million people in 2009.
The public workforce system is poised today to address challenges faced by workers who are dislocated as a result of COVID-19 and need rapid retraining to enter in-demand jobs, like those in healthcare, logistics, and manufacturing. But the system needs adequate investment to respond to the scale of need it is already facing.
2. Reauthorization of the TANF block grant and targeted funds for training TANF-eligible workers for healthcare careers: The bill includes a clean extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant through November 30, 2020. It also includes an extention of the Health Profession Opportunity Grants (HPOG) until November 30, 2020, allowing grantees a longer time period to spend existing dollars. HPOG grants go to partnerships between healthcare providers and workforce and education providers to empower TANF-eligible workers to access training for healthcare careers and to fund support services – like access to childcare and transportation – that ensure workers with the greatest skills needs can succeed in this training. Current HPOG grantees are set to finish out their grant cycle this year and the House has introduced a reauthorization bill to expand HPOG grants, and significantly increase funding for these grants, in what would be the third round of the program.
3. Layoff aversion strategies for small businesses and nonprofits: The bill includes access to up to $10 million in loans to businesses and nonprofits, including veterans’ organizations, to support payroll, insurance premiums, rent, and other costs incurred during the crisis. The bill also includes access to loan forgiveness provisions, tied to organizations maintaining employment levels and not laying off employees.
It provides federal support for Short-Time compensation (STC) – programs that enable workers to access a portion of their UI benefits when companies reduce their hours by 20%, enabling businesses to avert layoffs and reduce public UI costs. For states that already support STC, the bill would contribute 100% of cost of new claims. For states setting up new STC systems, federal funding would support both set up costs and 50% of claims.
The inclusion of nonprofit organizations in the loans provision is critical to workforce providers’ and human service organizations capacity to continue to serve clients during this time of crisis. For many local practitioners, the forced move to remote services means they’re helping clients in new ways – often without access to national or state grant funding to provide services like trying to access unemployment claims or meet work requirements associated with SNAP or Temporary Assistance for Need Families benefits.
These loans will be critical to enabling a robust network of training and human service organizations persist during the crisis, but it will be vital that nonprofits are able to access loan funds and are not penalized as being risky loan recipients based on low capital resources or other standards.
4. Resources for postsecondary institutions and the students they serve: Thousands of postsecondary institutions have had to close their doors to keep educators, students, and others safe during this pandemic. However, the needs of these institutions and students have not dissipated—rather, they have increased. As a result, the bill looks to provide emergency grant funding to both graduate and undergraduate students by expanding the Supplemental Economic Opportunity Grant (SEOG) program. SEOG grants aim to provide students with the most financial need with funding to offset the overall cost of their education. These expanded grants are meant to help students cover any unforeseen costs associated with COVID-19.
The bill also equips institutions to provide students enrolled in the Federal Work Study (FWS) program with the payments they anticipated receiving in exchange for their FWS service for the duration of the academic year. Additionally, if a student is unable to finish their coursework due to COVID-19 related issues, any Pell grants they used to cover the cost of enrollment will not count against their lifetime Pell eligibility.
In terms of direct support for postsecondary institutions, the bill provides $14.25 billion in funding to institutions of higher education to support students facing urgent needs related to coronavirus, and to support institutions as they cope with the immediate effects of coronavirus and school closures. This provides targeted formula funding to institutions of higher education, as well as funding for minority serving institutions and HBCUs.
5. Increased funding for supportive services, including childcare, housing and mental health services to states: The importance of supportive services for students, workers, and families cannot be overstated—particularly during times of crisis. Countless individuals across the U.S. have had to leave their jobs, drastically reduce their hours, adjust to remote work or schooling, or work overtime depending on their circumstances.
In recognition of this, the bill provides $3.5 billion in Child Care and Development Block Grants (CCDBG) to states for immediate assistance to child care providers to prevent them from going out of business and also to support child care for families, including healthcare workers, first responders, and others playing critical roles during this crisis.
The bill also provides $425 million in funding to address mental health and substance use disorders as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. It makes housing resources available under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for elderly, disabled, veteran, homeless, and low-income populations are funded at $17.4 billion.
Update March 26: On March 19, National Skills Coalition sent a letter to Congressional leadership detailing these comprehensive recommendations that would address needs of workers, businesses, and communities. On March 21, NSC along with more than 30 other national organizations, sent a letter to Congressional leadership calling for vital investments in workforce programming as part of any response to CoVid-19 and its economic impacts. For more on our analysis of the federal response to CoVid-19 and its economic impacts, see our blog here.
March 18 – The financial, emotional, and physical toll that the COVID-19 health pandemic has put on our country can’t be overstated. This is a time for federal policymakers to come together – using every policy lever possible, every public resource available – to do everything we can to immediately protect and support workers and small businesses. Based on principles informed by our networks, National Skills Coalition has developed the following policy goals for an immediate stimulus package to assist workers who need income, healthcare, and housing today and to shore up small and mid-sized businesses trying to keep their doors open. You can read the full reccomendations sent to Capitol Hill here. We know there are people who will suffer the impacts of this crisis more acutely and in inequitable ways and we are working with our network to develop policy solutions that could be in subsequent stimulus efforts over the next couple months.
Working with our networks, National Skills Coalition will release more detailed recommendations under these goals in the coming weeks. To stay informed about these recommendations, how we’re working with Congress to advance them, and how any passed legislation will impact your local community, please sign up for our email list.
Immediate Responses for a National Stimulus
Remove all barriers to our nation’s safety net: Immediately remove barriers to the existing federal safety net including health, food, housing, and cash assistance.
Congress is currently considering suspension of a rule that will make it harder for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) to get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Congress should suspend all work-related restrictions for all safety net programs and give recipients significantly more time to get back into family supporting jobs.
Provide comprehensive income, healthcare, and re-training support to all displaced workers: Guarantee access to income replacement, healthcare, and re-training for any displaced worker, including contingent workers.
America’s existing Trade Adjustment Assistance program provides these robust, comprehensive benefits, but it is only available to workers displaced by trade. This level of benefits must be expanded to all forms of economic displacement, including pandemics, and all types of workers including contingent workers. Universal, expanded access to supports necessary to help effectively and efficiently connect dislocated workers to good jobs would be a more targeted and more comprehensive solution than current Universal Basic Income proposals which only provide income replacement.
Help small and mid-sized business avert layoffs: Help businesses keep their employees while they are paid and re-trained during and in the aftermath of COVID-19, including for jobs that are themselves rapidly changing with new technology.
Current tax policydoes not empower businesses to invest reskilling workers, particularly those with the greatest skill needs. Congressional changes to the Work Opportunity Tax Credit could provide targeted tax credits that support investments in retraining and will be a more effective way to support retraining and retention of workers than payroll tax incentives to all businesses.
Additional Short-Term Responses for Subsequent Stimulus Efforts
Address immediate shortages in industries needed to respond to crisis: Industries like healthcare, logistics, and manufacturing are essential to responding to COVID-19 and are already facing severe shortages of trained workers. Congress can tee up Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) as quickly as possible to get as much money on the ground as possible to train displaced workers for these jobs and to ensure capacity is in place when community colleges and training providers re-open physical classrooms.
Update education and training policies to respond to marketplace disruption: Update our higher education policies to support the infrastructure and flexibility required for short-term digital learning to get displaced workers retrained quickly. This effort will help shore up the country for future disruptions whether they are health, environmental, trade, or technology related. This will also require a national effort to address the disproportionately low digital literacy skills among workers in industries like food service and retail that will be most impacted by job loss due to COVID-19.
Create jobs: There is strong bi-partisan support for a major effort to re-build our nation’s infrastructure, which could create millions of jobs that will be needed even more coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. NSC is leading efforts to develop a workforce training and re-employment title within anticipated federal infrastructure proposals. We want to ensure that any infrastructure package includes comprehensive training and support services with a focus on those who have been disproportionately impacted by racial inequities in education and labor policy.
National Skills Coalition’s newly updated fact sheets demonstrate the national and state demand for skills training and skilled workers to fill the in-demand jobs that define and support the American economy.
Every day, in communities across our nation, workers seek out opportunities to ensure their families can thrive. At the same time, businesses are anxious to hire skilled workers—people trained for jobs in growing industries like healthcare, medical technology, IT and software, and advanced manufacturing—as well as tradespeople like plumbers and electricians.
These jobs , which require education and training that falls between a high school diploma and a four-year degree, are the backbone of the American economy and they depend on a skilled workforce ready to fill them.
For many workers and families, skills training (including on-the-job training, apprenticeships, or two-year degrees) is a ticket into the middle class. And for employers, skills training is a valuable investment in their workforce, business productivity, and long-term success.
But too few people have access to the skills training and education needed to fill the jobs that power our economy. (See chart.) The mismatch between the skills workers have and the skills that in-demand jobs require leaves opportunity on the table. Skills training is the key to filling in-demand jobs—yet without access to skills training and education, workers are locked out of opportunities to succeed.
America’s workforce is its premier economic asset. Unlocking workers’ access to skills training prioritizes what workers and businesses need to fill in-demand jobs in a 21st century economy.
States can respond to this skills mismatch by adopting policies to expand equitable access to skills training, credentials and in-demand careers—particularly for communities who face structural or systemic barriers to participation, like low-income populations, people of color, and immigrants.
Individual employers can similarly invest in their incumbent workforce through in-house or external skills training opportunities facilitated by trusted partners like community colleges and local training providers.
Find out more and download your state’s skills mismatch fact sheet here.
 Sometimes called “middle-skill jobs”