Here's a quick rundown of three bills from the 2017-2018 Congress that would have a positive impact on closing the national skills gap, according to workforce development advocates.
All three of the bills have been referred to their respective committees.
Another, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, passed the House of Representatives in June 2017. It would reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, which provides more than $1 billion a year in federal funds for job training programs nationwide. There is broad support for the measure and reportedly a commitment from the Senate to take it up soon.
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The Jumpstart Our Businesses by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act. Introduced in January 2017 by Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, this bill would allow students enrolled in short-term job training programs to use federal Pell Grants to earn industry-based credentials.
"It tries to right-size the financial aid system in a way that allows people to be able to access credentials that actually matter to employers, rather than having them enroll in a two- or four-year program to receive aid," said Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director at the National Skills Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy research and advocacy group.
Under current law, Pell Grants—needs-based grants for low-income and working students—can only be applied toward programs that are over 600 hours or at least 15 weeks in length, while many job training programs are shorter term.
"There are many high-quality, short-term credentials recognized by employers which should be eligible for Pell Grants," said Mary Gardner Clagett, senior director of workforce policy at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit that develops programs and public policies that bridge education and work to build a more highly skilled, competitive workforce.
The Virginia Community College System has identified approximately 50 programs that would benefit from the JOBS Act, including ones in manufacturing, construction, energy, health care, information technology, transportation and business management.
"Often, the people who can gain the most by obtaining an industry-certified postsecondary credential cannot afford the training necessary to earn it," said Glenn DuBois, chancellor of Virginia's Community Colleges. "These programs neither take as long nor cost as much as traditional college degree programs, but are still beyond the reach of many people without financial aid. Changing that will help not only individual job-seekers but also the employers who need to hire qualified, highly skilled candidates to fill good-paying jobs right now."
Kaleba explained that there is a good chance that changes to eligibility requirements for Pell Grants will happen this year as part of legislation reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, especially after the White House specifically identified the issue as a priority.
The Promoting Apprenticeships through Regional Training Networks for Employers' Required Skills (PARTNERS) Act. Introduced in October 2017 by Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Drew Ferguson, R-Ga., the PARTNERS Act would support regional industry partnerships between businesses and local workforce stakeholders to enable small- and medium-sized employers to develop and expand apprenticeships and other work-based learning programs.
"Businesses—especially small- and medium-sized businesses—often lack the infrastructure to establish apprenticeships or work-based learning programs on their own," Kaleba said. "A small business doesn't typically have an internal training department or even an HR department, so launching an apprenticeship program becomes daunting."
Industry-sector partnerships to develop the local workforce have been successful, experts agreed.
"A group of employers in an industry sector get together and pool their aggregate resources to work with local educational partners and workforce development boards to design education and training programs for that industry based on the specific needs of the region," Clagett said.
These types of networks have expanded apprenticeships and other work-based learning to employers that haven't traditionally participated in apprenticeship programs, and also within occupational fields that have not traditionally offered apprenticeships, she said.
"The bill would also provide funding to help support workers with barriers, who are especially critical for employers searching for talent during this tight labor market," Kaleba said. "It provides additional resources to help with transportation or child care or other factors that may make it difficult to look for or stick with a job."
The Building U.S. Infrastructure by Leveraging Demands for Skills (BUILDS) Act. Reps. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., and Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, introduced this bill Feb. 6. It would support grants for work-based learning and apprenticeship programs to develop a pipeline of skilled workers specifically for infrastructure jobs in fields like transportation, construction and energy. Sens. Kaine and Portman introduced the Senate version of BUILDS in 2017.
Employers in infrastructure industries face intense labor shortages because of impending retirements, a lack of diversity, and skills shortages in advanced fields. And the immediate future doesn't look any brighter. There are 68 percent more projected job openings in infrastructure over the next five years than there are students training for these jobs, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Education.
President Donald Trump recently announced a $1.5 trillion plan to rebuild the nation's highways, bridges and other infrastructure. "While the president proposes investing in the country's infrastructure, the plan doesn't yet identify any new funding to support workforce development," Clagett said. "If we're really going to invest in infrastructure, we need to significantly invest in skills development to prepare the people who will be needed to perform this work."
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