House WIOA Reauthorization Bill Doesn’t Go Far Enough

At the end of 2023, the House Education and Workforce Committee advanced a bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) reauthorization, paving the way for modernizing the public workforce system. The introduction of the bill, known as A Stronger Workforce for America Act (ASWA), illustrates how our successful advocacy efforts have made improving the workforce and adult education system a top priority for policymakers. The full House is set to consider the legislation early in 2024.

ASWA was a bipartisan agreement led by the Chair and Ranking members of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Congresswoman Foxx (R-NC) and Congressman Scott (D-VA). It includes important provisions that would modernize how workers access funding for training, expands the integration of digital skills, codifies programs for partnerships between community colleges and industry, and offers new pathways for businesses to engage with the workforce system.

It falls far short, however, on authorizing funding levels necessary to enact these and other provisions. It also misses the mark on the role industry partnerships play in scaling business engagement with the system.

What is WIOA? A quick refresher:

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was passed in 2014, with the same Partisan makeup currently in office: a Republican-majority House, Democratic-majority Senate, and Democratic President. WIOA created new opportunities for workers and businesses and was intended to shift the system from work-first policies that restricted access to benefits and curtailed training to a greater focus on skills and careers.

WIOA governs the policies and administration of workforce programs for adult, dislocated and youth workers; adult education; Wagner-Peyser and the employment services system and vocational rehabilitation.

Need a refresher on the history of WIOA? Read about America’s primary workforce program here.

Why have workforce advocates called to reauthorize WIOA?

It has been a decade since WIOA was passed in 2014, and policies need to be updated to meet today’s economic moment. This is especially true after Congress made over $1 billion in investments in skills training through major federal legislation; massive economic displacement from a global pandemic; and new attention to the nation’s history of structural racism.

These changes most impact small businesses, women, people of color, those without education beyond high school, and those who worked in industries devastated in the pandemic, as well as others who face structural barriers in accessing and benefiting from the public workforce system.

How does the legislation stack up to what our network needs?

In June of 2023, NSC set out policy recommendations outlining the changes that are needed to turn WIOA from an underfunded system to one that is adequately resourced to deliver high-quality skills training that supports the assets and aspirations of working people, helps small businesses who hire locally and invest in their workers, and advances racial equity. Specifically, NSC proposed the following reforms:

  • Invest in programs to provide equitable high-quality skills training, economic supports, and pathways to quality jobs
    • Guarantee high-quality skills training for qualifying workers through new Skills Training Grants;
    • Create a new 21st Century Sector Partnerships Grant Program to develop a national network of high performing industry/sector partnerships and implement career pathways that advance workforce equity and job quality; and
    • Provide Digital Skills at Work grants and expand Integrated Education and Training (IET) programs that build digital, literacy, numeracy, and English language skills in the context of occupational education or training.

  • Provide accountability for our workforce system to contribute to an inclusive economy
    • Expand outcome measures, disaggregate data, and invest in evaluation and data systems to promote high-quality skills training, racial equity, and quality jobs; and
    • Require WIOA state and local plans and boards to incorporate racial equity goals that include workers’ voices.

  • Strengthen the delivery of equity-advancing WIOA career services through funding career navigation services, training frontline workers who deliver them, and piloting service delivery partnerships with culturally responsive, equity-focused service providers.

Compare WIOA and ASWA in this side by side chart.

Prior to the Committee’s release of the ASWA legislation, NSC and our partners at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, UnidosUS, and National League of Cities jointly reemphasized the importance of investing in industry/sector partnerships, digital skills grants, and expansion of and investment in data collection and analysis in a reauthorization of WIOA.

Invest in high-quality skills training, economic supports, and pathways to quality jobs

Right now, too few people can access high-quality skills training programs because policy does not support the full costs of training including critical supports like equipment, supplies, childcare, and transportation. Policy that does not address financial barriers to training means people who are out of work and looking for a new job do not have access to training, and that workers in lower-wage jobs who want to upgrade their skills to move into a better job and advance their careers are excluded from that opportunity. Current funding for WIOA programs and activities cannot meet worker needs or business demand and it is imperative that reauthorization is accompanied by adequate funding.

Although the Education and Workforce Committee that crafted ASWA does not make decisions on the actual amounts of funding that states and localities receive each year, they do recommend funding levels. The proposed funding levels suggested by the Committee reflect insufficient increases (1.32% for Youth, 1.36% for Adult, and 1.08% for Dislocated Worker) over 2020 levels, the last year of authorizations included in WIOA. ASWA proposes the same funding levels through the 2030 fiscal year, further signaling a lack of support for investment in the workforce system to appropriators.

ASWA would authorize $751,042,100 for fiscal years 2025 through 2030 for Title II Adult Education. This is just a slight increase in appropriated dollars today and far from adequate. In 2030, that same amount will cover even fewer workers’ training or businesses’ needs.

ASWA includes a requirement that 50 percent of local funds be spent on training and explicitly prevents the state Secretary of Labor from waiving this requirement. Greater access to training for workers is important and can only be achieved successfully through greater investment in all parts of the workforce system. Without increased funding, the new training requirement will draw resources from critical wrap around supports and workforce infrastructure.

Even where new funding streams are incorporated into the legislation, funding is shifted from other workforce activities that are already supported using these funds. For instance, the new legislation proposes that the fees generated by H1B visas, which are currently used to support other workforce programs, would instead be directed to a new dislocated worker training account program.

For too long, Congress has asked states and localities to serve jobseekers, adult learners, and industry without sufficient resources, and this legislation continues this long pattern. The lack of investment also stymies the possible impact of innovative proposals in the legislation.

Guarantee high-quality skills training for qualifying workers through new Skills Training Grants

For WIOA reauthorization to better support workers’ access to skills training, NSC recommended establishing Skills Training Grants Accounts that would provide up to $10,000 based on income eligibility to cover training tuition and fees, and supportive services such as equipment, supplies, exam costs and other expenses associated with training such as childcare and transportation.

A proposal in ASWA to provide Individual Training Accounts for Dislocated Workers bears similarities to this recommendation, but is more limited in scope- the program would provide a minimum of $5000 for training, ,is only accessible for dislocated workers, and the redirection of H-1B visa fees means this program will supplant – rather than supplement – programs that today support workers access to skills.

Create a new 21st Century Sector Partnerships Grant Program to develop a national network of high performing industry/sector partnerships and implement career pathways that advance workforce equity and job quality

Industry and sector partnerships bring together businesses, education and training providers, and other partners to develop workforce strategies that inform training and career pathways, broker apprenticeship and work-based learning, validate industry-specific credentials, inform industry practices, and shape hiring and worker advancement strategies. Since industry partnerships intentionally design training, hiring, and advancement opportunities between workers and employers within a particular sector, they can be used to disrupt occupational segregation, mitigate bias in hiring and advancement practices, and connect workers of color to quality jobs, if they are equity focused. Additionally, sector partnerships support small and medium businesses who don’t have the resources to connect individually with the workforce system.

In WIOA in 2014, Congress required states to support local areas in developing and scaling industry or sector partnerships. However, the lack of dedicated and sustainable funding limited adoption and implementation in practice. In NSC’s reauthorization recommendations, NSC proposed a $2 billion grant to support the formation and implementation of industry/sector partnerships and career pathways focused on addressing job quality and racial equity.

ASWA does not include dedicated funding for industry or sector partnerships, as described in this recommendation.

The bill does support partnerships in key ways that evidence the impact of NSC’s network’s advocacy. First, it codifies the Strengthening Community College Training Grant Program, which currently provides funds to community colleges to build partnerships with employers and supports the development of training programs. Ensuring that this program is made permanent is commendable, however, like so much of the legislation the suggested funding is far too low to support colleges in developing these programs.

Also, ASWA offers industry and sector partnerships an opportunity to apply for recognition as training providers and receive funding for providing training. These changes are included in updates to the Eligible Training Provider List (ETPL), the newly created Critical Industry Skills Fund, Employer Directed Skills Development (formerly customized training), and incumbent worker training programs.

Any integration of industry or sector partnerships into how local areas serve businesses and workers is a step forward. The changes in the House bill, however, focus on the services an industry or sector partnership can provide workers, missing the larger picture of the critical convening role these partnerships offer businesses. Some industry or sector partnerships may serve in a training provider role. Others – and perhaps the majority – bring together training providers in an industry in a local area, without stepping into that role.

NSC’s recommendation focuses on how to support this convening, this expertise sharing and ongoing connection between how workers access training, support for their success in it and business hiring needs. Any modernization of WIOA must contain provisions that support that role to truly scale sector strategies.

Provide Digital Skills at Work grants and expand IET programs that build digital literacy, numeracy, and language skills in the context of occupational education or training.

National Skills Coalition recommended that WIOA reauthorization fund and reflect our nation’s new digital reality through new Digital Skills at Work grants that would support upskilling and reskilling opportunities for workers to gain key digital skills. NSC also recommended that WIOA do more to support Integrated Education and Training (IET) models that teach literacy, numeracy, digital skills, and English language skills in the context of training for a specific occupation.

ASWA updates WIOA by including definitions that ensure digital skills are better integrated throughout foundational skill needs. However, there are no digital skills at work grants in ASWA. Without dedicated funding for workers to gain digital skills, small businesses cannot access the talent they need to grow and thrive, and the digital skills gap will persist.

ASWA does include a greater emphasis on IET: Eligible providers for training activities, including those in corrections education, must now include a description of how they will provide learning in context through IET, and the state must consider IET costs when awarding funds to eligible providers.

However, with the lack of funding for Title II adult education services, including to correctional institutions, many of the well-meaning changes around IET integration may be difficult for providers to implement, leading to persistent racial equity gaps, particularly in correctional institutions.

Provide accountability for our workforce system to contribute to an inclusive economy

National Skills Coalition recommended building on current WIOA measures and data systems to include measurements on workers’ earnings over time, disaggregated data by race and gender, and investment in evaluation and data systems.

ASWA makes certain strides in achieving these goals around data quality and transparency. For instance, ASWA:

  • Adds workforce data quality initiatives to the list of what the allowable uses of the Dislocated Worker National Reserve
  • Requires states to reserve 5% of Adult and Dislocated Worker funds to award grants to create longitudinal data systems
  • Directs Governors to establish a credential navigation feature that allows participants and the public to search a list of potential post-secondary credentials
  • Requires states to continually assess economic conditions and workforce trends and communicate them
  • Adds some additional reporting from providers that is disaggregated

Overall, this means more flexibility in how existing funds can be used to support data quality and transparency and spearheads initiatives in line with NSC’s recommendations, but with a lack of robust funding, workforce advocates may find themselves competing for limited dollars to do this additional work around data collection.

Still greater connection is needed between these new data initiatives and state ETPLs (Eligible Training Provider List), so that data about credentials, programs, and providers are available in one place and accessible to consumers.

National Skills Coalition recommends two key additional provisions to support racial equity. First, NSC recommends requiring state and local workforce boards and plans to incorporate racial equity by including people with lived experiences on boards, and their input into state and local plans. In ASWA, there are no mandatory changes to board make up or to state/local plans to better reflect racial equity and the communities that are served, despite the success of these strategies in instances such Colorado’s Workforce Development Council’s 2020 Colorado Talent Equity Agenda. In fact, ASWA technically makes it optional for local boards to submit plans, rather than mandatory.

Secondly, NSC recommends provisions that would fund and direct states to utilize workforce investments to support impact and implementation research and evaluation. The results of these evaluations are the foundation of continued evolution of our workforce system and its ability to evolve to integrate evidence-based practices, innovation, and drive towards equity.

Strengthen the delivery of equity-advancing career services to better meet the needs of working people and people of color, in particular.

NSC recommended increasing support for frontline workforce development professionals to provide equity-advancing career navigation and services to participants and supporting partnerships between local workforce boards and organizations with a track record of delivering culturally competent services. Career coaching and navigation are key to supporting working people in achieving their career goals and promoting racial equity in the workforce. This strategy has proven effective in states such as Illinois, where the Workforce Innovation Board created an Equity Task Force to develop recommendations for reducing inequities in Illinois’ workforce and education systems.

ASWA includes no dedicated funding to support career navigation and services that better serve workers and advance equity.

It does, however, clarify that local areas may use funds to train instructors on digital skills, a critical step towards enabling our public workforce system to prepare workers at the pace of technological change.

ASWA also instructs the one-stop delivery system to coordinate with Wagner-Peyser Employment Service (funded under WIOA Title III) to provide basic career services for adult or dislocated workers, including assisting workers in figuring out if they are eligible for financial aid assistance for programs outside of WIOA, like SNAP. ASWA directs localities to use existing funds for this counseling, and attention to racial equity nor trauma-informed practices are not specified in the legislation. While helping participants navigate if they qualify for other financial aid is a good step, NSC recommended this goes further; by mandating that there should be at least one staff member who is a skilled navigator across benefit programs.

Other Notable Changes

While this blog focuses on how ASWA measures up to NSC’s recommendations, there are several important changes we wanted to touch on briefly below. You can delve further into these and other provisions that we were unable to include by referencing the side-by-side chart.

  • Updates the Eligible Training Provider List (ETPL) allow training providers to apply for standard or conditional eligibility. Conditional eligibility allows an entity to serve as a training provider and receive funds based on certain benchmarks – 25% upon enrollment for training services, 25% upon program completion, 25% upon verification of employment, and the remaining 25% determined by the governor. Additionally, short-term, Pell eligible programs at institutions of higher education, are added to the list of ETPL eligible entities connecting this section to our network’s short-term Pell efforts. Finally, changes include a formal process for an employer or industry partnership to sponsor a training program if they cover some of the costs and agree to consider program completers for jobs.
  • Creates the Critical Industry Skills Fund program which allows a governor to use up to 10% of adult, dislocated, youth allotments with an equal match from the governor’s reserve and other state or local funds to provide reimbursements to employers or sector partnerships that upskill workers in priority industries that are identified by the state. The new program shifts funding from existing state allotments rather than drawing from new funding streams, which will reduce the amount of funding available for other programs and activities.
  • Codifies the Reentry Employment Opportunities (REO) program which provides grants to nonprofit organizations and community colleges to support justice involved individuals entering the workforce, improving earnings outcomes, and reducing recidivism, building on successes in state policies, such as the Tennessee Reconnect program.
  • Revises Incumbent Worker Training to increase the amount of funding that may be used by the local board to 30 percent which can be increased to as much as 45% if certain unemployment and labor force participation rates are met. Additionally, local boards can use up to 10% of incumbent worker funds on incumbent worker upskilling accounts to pay eligible providers for training services.
  • Emphasizes pay-for-performance strategies including requiring 30% of funding for contracts under REO and an increase from 10 percent to 40 percent in the amounts of local adult, dislocated and youth funding that may be used for pay-for-performance contracts. Pay-for-performance can support the problematic practice of creaming where those who are most likely to succeed receive greater support and services while individuals who are often from underrepresented populations and seen as harder-to-serve receive fewer services.
  • Makes changes to Youth Programs including replacing the term out-of-school youth with “Opportunity Youth,” providing greater flexibility to states in how youth funds may be spent and extending access to individual training accounts for in-school youth between the ages of 16 and 21.
  • Modifies Governors’ review of state workforce regions: At the end of the third year following passage of the bill, and every 8 years after that, the governor may propose the redesignation of workforce development areas in the state, which must be approved by a majority of local boards or rejected with alternate proposals. Outside of this process the governor can only redesignate areas based on failed performance, fiscal integrity, or unmet planning requirements or redesignation requests voluntarily initiated by the impacted areas.
What’s next? How can I take action?

The bipartisan nature of this bill is a critical milestone on the path to reauthorization. It also reflects the importance of skills policy to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and a shared understanding of the urgent need to equip both workers and businesses with the skills they need in this economy. A final reauthorization bill should go further, though – both in policy and in the funding levels to support the needs of business and workers. This is the bill that will govern our workforce and adult education system for the next decade, – it’s crucial that Congress gets it right.

Now that the bill has passed out of the House Education and Workforce committee, it will likely go to the full House in early 2024 for a vote. Bipartisan leadership on the bill and the strong bipartisan vote in committee suggest that it will pass out of the House. Then the bill will move to the Senate House, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee, currently led by Chairman Sanders (I-VT) and Ranking Member Cassidy (R-LA) for consideration. Internally and with our network, National Skills Coalition will advocate with Senate-side policymakers to build on this proposed language

Take action by contacting your member of Congress about the changes that workforce advocates want to see in a WIOA reauthorization. We hope you can continue your advocacy with us around these important priorities in Washington, DC in May at the annual Skills Summit where we will meet in-person with federal legislators! e