WIOA reauthorization is on the horizon – here’s a refresher on America’s primary workforce program

By Rachel Unruh, May 20, 2021

In April, President Biden put forward the American Jobs Plan (AJP) and American Families Plan (AFP). Together, the plans could drive recovery and address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and communities of color. The President included a proposed $100 billion for workforce development under AJP to help workers train for jobs it creates.

In response, Congress has initiated conversations to reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), America’s primary workforce training program. WIOA’s mission is to help people, including youth and those with significant barriers to employment, secure high-quality jobs and careers, and to help employers hire and retain skilled workers. Congress could make some fixes to WIOA this year to help the system administer the proposed $100 billion training investment. However, conversations about a full reauthorization of the law will likely continue throughout 2022.

Equity should be as central to WIOA reauthorization conversations as it is to recovery conversations. NSC will engage our networks over the next year to shape a longer-term WIOA reauthorization. On this journey, looking back is essential to understanding where we need to go.

Workforce policy before WIOA

As the economy has changed, so has federal workforce development policy dating back to the 1962 Manpower Development and Training Act. In the 1970s and 1980s, economic shifts spurred federal workforce development reforms and the 1982 Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA).

By the 1990s, economic growth and historically low overall unemployment drove federal workforce development policy toward a “work-first” focus. This included new restrictions under welfare reform that deeply curtailed access to training. Work-first also drove a sequence of service requirements that made training a last resort under a new Workforce Investment Act (WIA).

Despite renaming the program to suggest a commitment to investing in workers and employers, Congress had done the opposite. Work-first provisions represented a massive disinvestment in people and their futures. These provisions were packaged and sold to lawmakers and the public with racist tropes, like the “welfare queen.” Work first ultimately hurt a broad range of workers and communities, with a disproportionate impact on people of color. It hurt small and mid-sized companies that wanted to hire local workers but could not connect them to training.

In 2000, a group of local leaders came together, committed to never again allowing such a massive disinvestment in people. These leaders representing community organizations, labor, colleges, and workforce boards created National Skills Coalition (NSC). Over the next 14 years, NSC’s growing network crafted and advocated for bi-partisan reforms to WIA. These reforms came from what was working in their communities. And in July of 2014, President Obama signed into law a new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA).

How advocates shaped WIOA

NSC’s network had successfully advocated for new provisions under WIOA to better serve workers and employers. This included a push for inclusion of the bi-partisan SECTORS Act. SECTORS sought to promote industry growth and competitiveness through local sector partnerships. Sector partnerships align training and support services to the needs of an industry and the local workforce. They replaced the “train-and-pray” model under WIA that left many workers with training for jobs that did not exist.

NSC’s network also advocated for transparent career pathways so that navigating funding streams and agencies did not fall on workers. WIOA called for coordinated state plans that align workforce, education, and human service programs. The goal of this coordination was clear: transparent career pathways leading to in-demand, family supporting jobs.

And NSC’s network also earned a commitment to accountability and equity under WIOA. The final legislation prioritized low-income workers. It ended the “work-first” sequence of services that made training a last resort. Instead, WIOA put data about the effectiveness of education and training programs into the hands of workers, employers, and policymakers.

For over a decade, NSC’s members advocated for these reforms based on models they developed and tested in their communities.

Facing the challenges of WIOA implementation

What comes out of Washington lives and dies by its implementation in the states. Over the seven years since President Obama signed WIOA into law, NSC’s networks worked tirelessly to leverage WIOA. They advocated for WIOA’s use to drive more aligned, effective, and equitable skills training in their states and communities. And we have heard from them along the way about their triumphs and frustrations; what they have learned, and what they would do differently next time; who has been supported, and who has been harmed.

Despite the opportunities created by WIOA, a lot of challenges – vestiges of the old Workforce Investment Act – remain. Even with sequence of service mandates eliminated, not enough participants receive skills training for a new, better job. And many of the wins secured under WIOA turned out to be unfunded mandates. The system continues to face severe underfunding relative to demand, an equity issue given that workers of color are disproportionately enrolled in WIOA programs. There is no dedicated funding stream to support local sector partnerships. And the degree to which states engaged stakeholders to develop truly coordinated state plans across agencies varied significantly.

Adapting WIOA to meet the moment

A lot of things have changed in the country since WIOA became law: a restructured labor market, massive economic displacement from a global pandemic, accelerated technological change, and new attention to our history of structural racism. NSC will work with our networks to shape a reauthorized WIOA in this context. This work will be guided by the commitment in NSC’s Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery to address:

  • The disproportionate impact of the economic crisis on workers of color, immigrants, women, and workers with a high school diploma or less
  • The essential role of small businesses who hire locally and invest in their people but need policymakers to be their partner
  • The moral and economic imperative to dismantle the structural racism within workforce education and training systems that hold back workers, businesses, and the economy

NSC is also committed to the “how” laid out in Skills for an Inclusive Economic Recovery. This includes listening to new allies, broadening our networks, and assessing the racial impacts of policies for which we advocate. In this work, NSC will be guided by our new racial equity policy development tool – stay tuned for more on this soon.

Weighing urgency with intentionality in WIOA reauthorization

Realizing WIOA’s potential takes time. Congress’ urgency to make some immediate fixes is important to ensure training investments under AJP are deployed effectively. Longer term, Congress should give the full reauthorization process the time and attention it deserves. The workforce development system has been responding to a crisis for over a year. It pitched in on unemployment insurance efforts, served its clients remotely, faced irregular and unpredictable business closures. Congress needs to listen to workforce stakeholders. Policymakers need to hear what they’ve learned and what they need in a transformed economy. Listening to a broad range of stakeholders is essential for WIOA to support the equity goals the President has set.

What’s next: Aligning stakeholder needs

WIOA still has the potential to align essential services and supports that workers and small businesses need to thrive. At the WIOA signing ceremony in 2014, then-Vice President Biden delivered to President Obama a review of federal workforce programs. The report documented that different federal workforce programs address the needs of different groups of workers and different industries. It also put forward a call to action: Our nation’s economic future requires aligning programs to better serve workers and employers. There has been progress. But as millions of workers seek training for good jobs in new industries, this call to action is still essential.

NSC looks forward to engaging our networks over the next year to understand how WIOA can support an equitable, inclusive workforce in a world in which change is the only constant. And we look forward to standing with our network partners to advocate for change in the years to come.

Photo: President Obama signs the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, July 22, 2014 (via