Congress is on the verge of making historic investments in workforce 

By Katie Spiker, October 27, 2021

Momentum for inclusive skills training is palpable, thanks to your advocacy

Oct 28 Update: Congress and President Biden announced the framework for Build Back Better Act this morning, and that framework recognizes the importance of skills by including historic investments for workforce development. If a final bill passes, tens of billions of dollars would go to our public workforce system, to support training and capacity at community and technical colleges, and to support industry or sector partnerships – much as we anticipated in the blog below. This is an enormous win for workforce advocates. While we didn’t get everything workers & businesses need because such significant portions of the agenda were stripped to meet spending goals, the investments in workforce are there because of our coalition’s shared advocacy.


There are three major legislative negotiations taking place that could significantly impact our collective efforts to ensure an inclusive economic recovery for the workers and businesses most impacted by the pandemic’s economic fallout. And thanks to our coalition’s advocacy, we are poised for some historic investments that could pave the way for even greater progress in our fight for a national commitment to inclusive, high-quality skills training so that more people have access to a better life, and more local businesses see sustained growth.

First, Congressional Democrats are close to an agreement around components of the Build Back Better Act – their economic recovery legislation in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The Build Back Better Act includes components of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan. It is commonly referred to as the reconciliation bill because the investments would be made through the budget reconciliation process.

Second, the Senate has passed a bipartisan infrastructure deal that is waiting on House passage. And finally, Congress needs to pass annual appropriations to keep the government funded through next fall.

Much of the Build Back Better Act is still being ironed out – or not publicly reported on. The timing – or even ultimate passage – of an infrastructure deal is far from guaranteed. And Congress may not have time or bipartisan support to reach a meaningful agreement on appropriations, instead opting to continue current Trump-era funding levels for as long as another year.

Even with all that uncertainty, there are a few things that seem likely in DC over the next couple of months.  

Congress could invest historic levels of funding in workers’ access to skills – both for workers who need to upskill and those who need to reskill to find new jobs

Since March, NSC has been advocating for a $100 Billion investment in workforce funding. That’s exactly the level of workforce funding that President Biden called for in the American Jobs Plan. And, last month, the House Education and Labor Committee recommended a robust $80 billion investment in workforce development.  While it’s unlikely that Congress will make this level of investment, the Build Back Better Act could still include a historic increase of anywhere from $10 – $30 billion for workforce training. This includes investments in the workforce system and in the capacity for community colleges to partner with employers and local stakeholders to prepare workers for in-demand jobs.

If this investment is made over 5 years, that could mean nearly doubling the current federal investment in America’s workforce. This is a larger supplemental investment in workforce training than we saw during the Great Recession and on scale with investments made during the Great Depression.

However, even at these historic levels, this investment still won’t meet the scope and scale of what’s required for an inclusive economic recovery that reaches the workers and businesses most impacted by the pandemic’s economic fallout. Even with a doubled investment, the US would still be investing less in its workforce than every other industrialized country in the world. And even as we will celebrate this historic increase, we will continue to work with our networks to fight for the resources that America’s workers and businesses need.

Congress could lay the foundation for a comprehensive network of partnerships between the public workforce system, community and technical colleges, labor, businesses and community organizations

NSC’s Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery Agenda – along with recommendations from our four Industry Recovery Panels — call for investments in a comprehensive network of industry or sector partnerships and partnerships between community and technical colleges and businesses. Thanks to our coalition’s advocacy, The Build Back Better Act could invest in both.

Demand for skilled workers is spiking, but it varies by industry and local areas across the country. Investing in industry-based training models will help workers, businesses, and communities adapt to a changing economy. This means ensuring models are developed together with local businesses, training providers, and advocates so that they properly reflect the local economies they serve.

If Build Back Better includes even a few billion in investments in sector-based training programs, that investment sets the stage for critical partnerships in industries and local areas across the country. It also enables states and local areas to advance innovative practices – such as connecting training participants with childcare supports or scaling training for incumbent workers. And those innovations can inform and advance upcoming reauthorizations for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Higher Education Act and other federal legislation.

Congress could take an important step in addressing the digital skill divide

The Senate-passed $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill authorizes funding that can be used to support workers’ access to technology, broadband, and foundational digital skills, consistent with the bipartisan Digital Equity Actintroduced by Senators Murray (D-WA) and Portman (R-OH).

Nearly 50 million people in the U.S. need to build foundational digital skills to harness the power of connected devices. The provisions in the infrastructure bill would provide states and local areas with funding to develop plans to close the digital divide, including the digital skill divide. .

This is an important start in getting more people connected to and using technology in their homes. But technology will continue to change and every person must also have the opportunity to develop skills to harness current workplace technologies and adapt to ongoing technological shifts in the workplace.

A comprehensive strategy to close the digital divide and achieve digital equity at work will build on this first important victory. . That strategy must ensure every worker can access foundational digital skills, build industry- and occupational-specific digital skills to adapt and advance their careers, and rapidly reskill when they are displaced by technological or other disruptions.

Congress could – on a bipartisan basis – take a step toward making college work for working people

NSC’s Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery Agenda – along with recommendations from our four Industry Recovery Panels — calls for investments in the capacity of local community colleges along with changes that make college more accessible to working adults and more responsive to rapidly changing skill demands.

It was widely reported last week that provisions that focused on free community college for all students had been eliminated by Democrats in crafting a final Builds Back Better Act. This disappointing decision restricts workers pathways to good jobs and limits community college capacity to train workers for jobs for which businesses are hiring. Our economy, working people, and the businesses that hire them need investments in both free community college and in workforce programs – because they serve different workers at different times in their careers, and build a worker pipeline for different industries and essential occupations.

Provisions still being discussed include increasing Pell grant amounts, which would help students working toward 2-year degrees access programs at community and technical colleges and support the role these institutions play in our economic recovery.

If a final Build Back Better Act does eliminate free community college, Republicans and Democrats will still have the opportunity to work together on other provisions that would make college work for working people.

The first legislative opportunity for this bipartisan effort will be this year’s appropriation process. Congress could include policy changes that NSC’s coalition has been leading the charge on, such as expanding Pell grants to high-quality, short-term programs, consistent with the JOBS Act. The bipartisan JOBS Act would expand access to federal financing for high-quality, short-term programs at community and technical colleges. This would enable workers who lose their jobs or want to advance or change careers to rapidly reskill. Most immediately, it would allow workers to prepare for new jobs in infrastructure industries created under the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

If any or all of these outcomes come to fruition – it’s because of your advocacy

Significant portions of the president’s agenda will be stripped from Build Back Better to meet overall spending goals. But these outcomes will still be a significant victory for the workers and businesses hit hardest by the pandemic. And the fact that Congress is poised to include these investment in workforce in a package from which is directly related to your advocacy.

Over the past 20 months, NSC partners have attended almost 500 hill meetings. More than 500 organizations and almost 150 business and industry associations have signed on to letters to members of Congress calling out the importance of investments in skills for an inclusive economic recovery. And even more have sent letters, emails and called their elected officials to ensure they recognize the importance of investing broadly in America’s workforce.

Our shared advocacy has resulted in real momentum for skills training that lawmakers, the administration, and the media can’t ignore.

Stay tuned to The Skills Blog and Twitter for updates and for opportunities to continue to influence the conversation on skills.