Analysis: What the 2014 Elections Mean for Skills

By Rachel Unruh, November 12, 2014

On November 4, 36 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2014 midterm elections resulting in what some have called a red wave. In Washington, Republicans flipped the Senate and increased their majority in the House. In the states, Republicans increased their hold on Governor’s mansions with a net gain of two, bringing their total to 31. Likewise, Republicans gained majorities in 11 state chambers, for a total of 68. The red wave has definitive implications for some issues that served as political markers for candidates – particularly issues like healthcare, the minimum wage and K-12 education. But what do these election results mean for less divisive issues like workforce development?

NSC’s analysis suggests that workforce development continues to hold sway as a campaign issue with appeal on both sides of the aisle, particularly in local and state elections where policymakers are grappling with the day-to-day impact of the skill gap on the unemployed and on industry. In Washington, the successful bipartisan effort to reauthorize WIOA could foreshadow easier times ahead for career and technical education and possibly for higher education reauthorizations in comparison to more politically charged issues facing the next Congress.

While workforce training appears to have bipartisan support, there are some indications that both congressional Republicans and some Republican governors may be developing proposals to make job training a mandatory requirement for recipients of a range of public benefits, a move that has in the past been used to sanction people off of essential safety net programs. There is also likely to be some pushing for work requirements for public benefits that focus on short-term placement as opposed to long-term attachment to career path employment. And ongoing debates in Washington over federal funding will continue to pose a threat to all discretionary programs, including human capital programs.

In the States

Creating a skilled workforce is an issue that has been embraced by Republican and Democrat governors over the last five years as part of an economic growth and opportunity agenda. Earlier this year, during the state-of-the-state address season, more than a dozen governors announced new legislative and budget proposals to support workforce development efforts in their state. As state budgets recover from the recession, these governors targeted middle-skill training for increased investments, including proposals to provide support for employer-led sector partnerships, to align the state’s workforce system, to make technical and community college affordable, and to assist the long-term unemployed back to work.

This year’s election proved that workforce development’s bipartisan appeal continues to hold for state leaders. A number of governors ran – and won – on platforms that prominently featured workforce training. In her acceptance speech to supporters, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley indicated that during her second term she would focus on workforce training. A number of other victorious Republican gubernatorial candidates spoke of workforce training on the campaign trail and in their acceptance speeches, including Governors Baker (MA), Branstad (IA), Kasich (OH), and Snyder (MI). Victorious Democrats also gave attention to the issue on the campaign trail, including Governors Hickenlooper (CO), Raimondo (RI), and Wolff (PA). This attention to workforce development as an economic growth strategy creates an opportunity for local advocates to weigh in on their governors’ agendas, particularly new governors working on transition plans.

While the attention to workforce development in gubernatorial races is encouraging, there are indications that some Republican governors championing workforce training may make job training a mandatory requirement for recipients of public benefits. In the past, such proposals have used mandatory training as a way to move large numbers of people off of essential safety net programs as opposed to helping to move them to self-sufficiency. Governor Walker has indicated that he wants to tie receipt of public benefits in Wisconsin to drug tests and mandatory job training. Governors Brownback (KS) and Mead (WY) have indicated that they would like to tie Medicaid expansion to “workforce development” requirements. In addition, some governors appear to be in support of imposing work requirements for certain federal benefits, despite eligibility for waivers that would allow recipients of these benefits to participate in employment focused adult basic education and job training programs.

Workforce advocates will need to weigh in with their Governors and state legislatures to ensure that workforce and education programs are not being used to sanction people off of support service programs but instead that these programs are working together to help more people achieve career path employment. The forthcoming implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) will provide an opportunity for states to better align human capital programs and support services. States have the choice of submitting a unified plan that addresses the four titles of WIOA, or submitting a combined plan that also includes operational plans required by Career and Technical Education (CTE), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment and Training (SNAP E&T), Temporary Assistance to Needed Families (TANF), and others.

In Washington

If there is anything to take from the divisive partisan gridlock of the 113th Congress, it’s that workforce development can be a bipartisan issue. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) sponsored by Senators Murray (D-WA), Harkin (D-IA), Alexander (R-TN), and Isakson (R-GA), along with Representatives Kline (R-MN), Foxx (R-NC), Miller (D-CA), and Hinojosa (D-TX) passed the Senate on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis, 95-3 and the House, 415-6. There are few issues that have received this kind of bipartisan, bicameral support in the current Congress.

With the flipping of the Senate to Republican control, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) will likely assume leadership of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee, which is tasked with overseeing the reauthorization of two major pieces of legislation of significance to those in the workforce development world – the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act and the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA). It’s possible that these bills will be lost in the shuffle as the committee tackles two of the most politically divisive issues under its jurisdiction – the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Senator Alexander has been outspoken about his desire to reverse the President’s K-12 reforms (particularly Common Core and use of Race to the Top funds) and Congressional Republicans have identified repeal of ACA as a top priority in the next Congress.

However, it’s also possible that the inevitable gridlock over these two high profile issues will create the desire to move less politically charged legislation. Perkins and HEOA could fit the bill, although HEOA is likely to draw partisan debate over certain issues. Within the context of these bills, data and accountability continue to be an area where Republicans and Democrats could come together. NSC’s Workforce Data Quality Campaign has put forward recommendations — for Perkins and HEA — that would support better data for accountability, transparency and program improvement.

On the funding side, workforce development advocates will likely continue to have considerable work to do to advocate for adequate funding levels and to protect programs from threatened cuts. Unlike its predecessor WIA, which simply specified that the program would be funded by Congress using “such sums as necessary,” the new WIOA authorizes specific funding levels for each fiscal year from 2015 through 2020. But getting those authorized amounts appropriated in a climate of continued budget cutting will require concerted advocacy.

Beyond WIOA, the workforce field will probably see a return of budget proposals from Senate and House budget chairs to curtail other skill programs including Pell grants for working adults. Past Republican budgets have proposed eliminating Pell grants for part-time students, calling for Pell to be “reserved for students with a larger commitment to their education.” Low-income working adults trying to re-skill or up-skill at local community colleges would be most impacted by such cuts. It will be essential that the workforce field, including local employers, weigh in on these funding debates and educate policymakers about the impacts these programs have on local economies. It will be particularly important for Congress to hear from small and mid-sized employers who rely on their partnership with federally funded human capital programs to train their workforce.