NSC Networks Reveal States’ Top Priorities and Key Legislative Actions

By Yasmin Fallahkhair, June 08, 2021

NSC’s fight for inclusive, high-quality skills training is made stronger by our state networks, SkillSPAN and Business Leaders United (BLU). These networks build and mobilize local coalitions to craft and pass unified workforce, education, and supportive services policies that invest in the American people. With 20 SkillSPAN coalitions and 14 BLU state affiliates across the country, the efforts of these state networks elevate the needs and interests of those closest to the ground and most impacted by the pandemic – America’s workers and small/medium-sized businesses.

In the first half of each year, SkillSPAN and BLU networks focus on legislative opportunities to advance skills training and the supports needed to make access to high-quality training possible. This time traditionally offers insight into the state of states as leaders’ priorities are reflected in policymaking and administrative discussions. With the 2021 legislative sessions taking place one year from the start of the pandemic, NSC’s state network efforts reveal both how leaders are currently responding to economic needs and the values they’re aiming to embed in the future of their states.

Key Policy Priorities

No state was exempt from the impact of the pandemic, in spite of regional or political diversity. As a result, all states in our SkillSPAN and BLU networks identified similar policy priorities in this year’s legislative sessions.

Credentials, Upskilling, and Work-Based Learning

As unemployment skyrocketed, many policymakers looked to expand access to skills training opportunities in their states. The goal was to get workers jobs in industries reflective of local employer needs. In Louisiana, lawmakers introduced a bill to provide financial support for students earning credentials through both short-term workforce training programs and associate degree programs that align to in-demand industries, including construction, healthcare, IT, and manufacturing. In addition, leaders leveraged CARES Act funds to rapidly deploy short-term credential and training programs for displaced workers.

California also aims to utilize American Rescue Plan funds for workforce development. Governor Newsom’s proposed budget includes $1 billion to support displaced workers seeking reskilling and upskilling opportunities or business start-up costs. The funds would be distributed through a one-time grant program established by the California Student Aid Commission. The Governor’s budget also includes a proposed $115 million investment in High Road Training Partnership (HRTP) opportunities. These provide workers of color and those from disadvantaged communities with reskilling and upskilling pathways to high-quality jobs in high-demand industries. Through regional partnerships with state community colleges, HRTPs advance racial equity by creating tailored and innovative models for public workforce programs that are responsive to change and address the needs of those most impacted by the pandemic.

Supportive Services

Some state leaders are doubling down on ensuring workers have the wraparound supports required to get reskilled and into high-quality jobs that pay family-living wages. Indiana’s new law prevents disqualification of TANF benefits from income earned through skills training opportunities by those 24 or younger. This includes pursuit of postsecondary degrees, workforce certificates, pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs, and work-based learning opportunities. In Iowa, the Department of Human Services extended SNAP Employment & Training eligibility to include programs with non-profit training providers. They’re also expanding access to these programs in more community colleges across the state.

One of the clearest barriers to skills training and employment during the pandemic was childcare. States are looking for innovative solutions to this monumental challenge. Michigan launched a $1 million pilot program to develop three tri-share childcare programs. The MI Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity runs this cost-sharing model. It divides childcare expenses between families, employers, and the state for Michigan’s rural, urban, and suburban communities.

Some states, like Connecticut, are using this time to reinforce support for existing childcare programs. The state leveraged American Rescue Plan funds to expand Care 4 Kids childcare subsidies to low-income parents participating in education and training programs in the next two years. This includes postsecondary education, adult basic education, job training, and industry certificate programs.

Digital Divide

Finally, not many workers are trained to meet the demands of an accelerated digital workplace. However, few state leaders have taken concrete steps in addressing this issue due to the breadth of its challenges. But there’s at least one exciting development to keep an eye on… The budget passed by the Texas House includes three NSC-recommended digital inclusion policies. They include:

  • Adding digital literacy to the curriculum scopes of adult education and training programs;
  • Ensuring the Texas Workforce Commission collects and disaggregates unemployment insurance claimant data to target digital skills training to those in need of jobs, and
  • Maximizing all federal funding streams tied to workforce development to support digital inclusion.

Differing Approaches to the Same Challenges

While states face similar landscape challenges following the pandemic, one thing remains consistent: how states address these issues varies.

Many policymakers are eager to look past immediate impacts, instead directing attention to quickly reopening states as an economic strategy. Workers, businesses, public agencies, and training providers, however, continue to operate head-under-water with monumental disruptions to employment, education, housing, and more. As a result, state leaders are operating under a false belief that relief and recovery are mutually exclusive. This dichotomy should be a major concern. Those most impacted by the pandemic (i.e., women, low-income workers, and workers of color) are at the greatest risk of being left behind if significant investments addressing systemic barriers are not included in recovery efforts.

Another clear challenge: political differences are limiting meaningful discussions and actions. Partisanship hinders efforts to define challenges faced by America’s workers and businesses and states’ roles in responding to pandemic-induced needs. For example, policymakers in several states struggle to agree on the causes of low workforce participation rates seen across communities. One consequence of these partisan fights is the lack of uniform responses to the pandemic across states. Some leaders have chosen to pivot and re-envision their workforce systems. Others have instead chosen to implement rapid reemployment strategies with little regard for job quality or wraparound supports.

What’s Next

NSC’s SkillSPAN and BLU networks had a hand in each of the examples shared above. And we’ll continue to advance meaningful policy discussions in these states in service of America’s workers and businesses.

Stay tuned! We’ll be diving deeper into state’s top policy priorities and examples that leaders can learn from and replicate in a series of forthcoming blogs.

Photo: The Texas State Capitol Building, where the Texas House recently passed a state budget including three of National Skills Coalition’s digital inclusion policies (via Michael Barera)