It’s time for Congress to invest in a more equitable, resilient workforce system

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation intended to modernize and reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). WIOA is the primary law that establishes our nation’s public workforce system. While the House bill includes some important provisions, it doesn’t do enough to advance workforce development strategies that support working people’s careers, and the recommended level of funding is insufficient relative to need.

As the U.S. Senate now considers the bill, landmark research on career navigation by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions shows why we need to transform our nation’s primary workforce system to support the assets and ambitions of working people, advance racial equity, and engage employers to provide pathways to quality jobs so that everyone can thrive.

We need to invest in a public workforce system that better supports working people’s assets and ambitions as they navigate their careers

Research the National Fund conducted with the Project on Workforce at Harvard University shows that workers who are most able to effectively navigate their careers have access to accurate information about career opportunities, skills training and credentials, and social and financial support. Unfortunately, access to these resources is largely determined by social structures rooted in racism and other forces of inequity. As a result, Black, Latinx and Indigenous workers are most likely to encounter fewer career choices, limited opportunities for upward mobility, and are disproportionately concentrated in lower-wage occupations.

The National Fund’s interviews with dozens of workers across the country show that people in low-wage jobs are striving to advance their careers, but often face structural barriers when it comes to navigating them. Most of the workers interviewed landed in their current job out of necessity; few had the opportunity to explore multiple career paths to find one that fit their interests, career ambitions, and financial goals. Many worked multiple jobs to make ends meet, putting formal training and entrepreneurial dreams on the back burner. Some tapped into social networks or community-based organizations to connect to skills training, which, typically, was limited to a few occupations. The interviewees, who were identified through local workforce or training programs, were largely unaware of support available through our nation’s underfunded public workforce system.

WIOA reauthorization should focus on fixing this. Our nation needs a resilient, equitable workforce system that gives all working people the resources and agency to navigate their careers and thrive economically. To fully support working people and their careers, federal workforce development policies like WIOA should work in tandem with policies designed to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions, protect workers’ rights to organize, make fundamental resources like childcare and transportation more affordable and accessible, and eliminate discrimination.

Industry partnerships can drive coordinated change to expand pathways to quality jobs

Congress can start by investing in a national network of industry partnerships and career pathways and skills training grants. A proposal included in the President’s Fiscal Year 2025 budget request would do just that. It would allocate $8 billion for a new Career Training Fund that would provide industry partnerships with up to $10,000 per worker to train people from underrepresented communities for jobs in high-demand sectors and provide supportive services like childcare and transportation. This proposal reflects WIOA recommendations made by National Skills Coalition.

Industry partnerships can support workers in navigating their careers by expanding their access to skills and credentials, wraparound resources, and social capital. These partnerships bring together local businesses, unions and workers, community colleges, training providers, and community-based organizations to develop comprehensive workforce strategies for a local industry. Together, these partners develop and coordinate worker recruitment and hiring strategies, career pathways training, apprenticeship and work-based learning, and resources like childcare, transportation, and training and work-related supplies. They can also improve job quality by shaping industry practices, job standards, and worker advancement strategies. Increasingly, industry partnerships are using their collective influence to drive policy and system changes that increase the availability of essential resources like childcare and transportation.

Since industry partnerships intentionally design training, hiring, and advancement opportunities, they can disrupt social structures like occupational segregation and racially homogenous hiring networks that limit career navigation for workers of color. They can also collaborate with employers to make their hiring and promotion practices more equitable. For example, industry partnerships that work with National Skills Coalition and the National Fund have helped employers make their job requirements more visible, remove unnecessary degree requirements, and eliminate criminal background and credit checks.

Workforce data that centers workers’ needs, voices, and ambitions can support better career navigation

Congress can also support more effective and equitable career navigation by creating better workforce data and evaluation systems under WIOA. To navigate career choices, people need accurate information about what industries in their area are hiring, what those jobs are and how much they pay, and what the career pathway looks like in that field. They also need information on the kinds of economic outcomes they can anticipate when they make a choice to invest time and resources on education, training, and pursuing an occupation.

To improve career navigation at the systems level, workforce programs should be measured by their ability to offer workers pathways to good jobs, not just placement in any job. The public workforce system is more likely to offer programs that lead to the economic gains that workers want if they are required to meet outcomes metrics focused on longer-term employment and wage status, occupation-specific job placement, and job quality factors. Just as importantly, data on program outcomes should be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and gender to evaluate the efficacy and equity of programs for workers of color and other populations. Finally, workers’ perspectives should be centered in the design and evaluation of workforce programs — their experiences and wisdom can improve the workforce system so it better supports career navigation and pathways to economic mobility.

The House bill gives states more flexibility to use existing funds to develop better workforce data systems but fails to dedicate specific resources to this function. Without dedicated funding for workforce data systems, states will have to make hard choices about whether to spend limited funds on skills training or data. Because high-quality skills training and good data go hand-in-hand, such trade-offs hamper the workforce system’s ability to support effective and equitable career navigation.

Stronger career navigation services can advance equity and economic mobility

Finally, Congress can strengthen how career navigation services are provided in public workforce programs so that such services intentionally advance racial equity, eliminate bias, and address structural barriers. Most people who access WIOA services rely on guidance and support from frontline workforce development professionals as they navigate their careers. These professionals handle everything from determining someone’s eligibility for programs to assessing someone’s skill needs to providing information on the labor market, training options, and program referrals. Frontline workforce development professionals can also play an important role in ensuring that people of color have access to occupations and industries where they are under-represented. But we need to invest more and differently in equity-advancing career coaching that takes an asset-based approach and centers the whole person.

The research conducted by the National Fund and Project on Workforce found that career navigation services that are culturally relevant, high-touch, and accessible are most effective. In worker interviews conducted by the National Fund, those who were most successful in meeting their training and employment goals had the good fortune of finding a caring career coach, college advisor or supervisor. These individuals provided reliable information on opportunities, guidance on securing resources, and help developing a career plan. They offered encouragement to help workers overcome personal and systemic challenges. Equity-advancing career navigation services should be the rule, not the exception.

As our nation considers the reauthorization of this critical workforce legislation, it’s urgent that we invest in a more equitable, resilient workforce system – one capable of supporting the efforts of people across the country who are working hard to navigate education, training, and employment to advance their careers and unlock economic prosperity for themselves and their families.

To learn more about the National Fund’s original research on workers lived experience with career navigation, register for our free symposium, scheduled for May 29.