Department of Education announces Reimagine Workforce Preparation grants

By Kermit Kaleba, June 23, 2020

The U.S. Department of Education today published a Notice Inviting Applications (NIA) for $127.5 million in new grant funds that states and other stakeholders can use to create or expand short-term education and training opportunities, including career pathways models, and to support the development of small business incubators on college campuses. The new grants announced by the Department align with several of the priorities outlined in National Skills Coalition’s March recovery framework, including expanded access to high-quality short-term education and training to help displaced workers quickly transition to new jobs and industries, and helping small and medium sized businesses in critical industries respond to rapidly changing economic conditions. These funds were originally authorized under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) passed by Congress earlier this spring, and grants are specifically intended to help address employment, training, and business development needs relating to the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The NIA outlines two specific types of activities (referred to in the document as “Absolute Priorities”) that are eligible for consideration:

  • Under Absolute Priority 1, state workforce boards may apply for funding to “create or expand short-term education and training opportunities and/or career pathways programs that help citizens return to work, become entrepreneurs, or expand their small businesses.” State boards may then subgrant funds to a range of education and training providers, including institutions of higher education, labor organizations, business or trade associations, and continuing education providers. The application particularly encourages states to utilize “sector-based” strategies in identifying programs and credentials that can meet the needs of both workers and industry. The application identifies a broad range of allowable uses of funds, including but not limited to:
    • student stipends for work-based learning opportunities;
    • subsidized tuition and fees for short-term educational programs and career pathways programs;
    • procurement or rental of equipment and supplies necessary for instruction and assessment;
    • providing pre-apprenticeship, adult education, and literacy activities (including integrated education and training);
    • providing supportive services for participants, including childcare
    • vouchers and transportation vouchers, career guidance and academic counseling, and develop and implement interoperable learning record systems.

Short-term programs support under these grants must lead to certificates, badges, micro-credentials, licenses, or other workplace-relevant credentials that respond to the needs of employers or facilitate entrepreneurship. Importantly, states must work to develop mechanisms to assure the quality of short-term programs, and must ensure that information about all credential and competencies developed or delivered under the grants publicly accessible through the use of linked open data formats that support full transparency and interoperability. These requirements are aligned with National Skills Coalition’s efforts to improve quality assurance for short-term and non-degree programs, and we applaud the Department for taking steps to advance this work to support better outcomes for workers and businesses.

  • Under Absolute Priority 2, state workforce boards can apply for funds that would be sub-granted to colleges and universities (or affiliated entities) to support the development or expansion of small business incubator programs and facilities. Funds under this approach may be used for, among other purposes, converting facilities to small business incubators, hiring staff to operate such facilities, subsidizing wages for faculty or entrepreneurs, subsidizing educational costs for incubator participants, and purchasing or renting shared equipment.

State workforce boards may only apply for funding under one of the Absolute Priorities identified above. The Department will award funding based on the number of quality applications received, but generally anticipates that awards will range between $5 million and $20 million. Applications are due by August 24, 2020.

The application awards points to applications in part on the basis of a state’s “coronavirus burden,” which is calculated by looking at the percentage of a state’s population without broadband access; initial unemployment insurance claims filed as a percentage of the civilian labor force; and the state’s percentage share of confirmed coronavirus cases. The Department provides a preliminary list of state percentiles, but notes that these calculations will be updated to reflect data as of the August 24 deadline for applications. In addition to these factors, the application identifies several other competitive preference priorities in making grant awards. Under Absolute Priority 1, states may receive additional points for projects in which training is primarily delivered through distance learning, and may also receive additional points for proposing to serve lifelong learners in distressed communities (generally rural areas and Opportunity Zones). Under Absolute Priority 2, states can receive additional points for serving entrepreneurs and businesses in distressed communities.

National Skills Coalition looks forward to working to ensure these and other recovery investments go to quality programs where people earn in-demand credentials that connect them to good, skilled jobs; working with our state workforce, business, and higher education partners on the rollout of these and other federal stimulus grants; and continuing to advocate for data policies that assess whether people most impacted by the pandemic recession are being effectively served by these and other grants – including workers of color and people without a college degree.