Finally, a Workforce Training Law that can Work

July 24, 2014

Push long and hard enough, even the most stubborn of barriers will crack. Case in point: the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday.

This rare triumph of bipartisan compromise and old-fashioned common sense is more than a decade past due, but the delay makes it no less significant.

The legislation for the first time aligns federal workforce development policy with proven, sector-based strategies — the very strategies pursued so effectively by local Kellogg Community College and its Regional Manufacturing Technology Center, Battle Creek Unlimited and other partners in the public and private sectors.

Indeed, instrumental in writing the law was U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican and a former community college president who understands more than most legislators the potential of such partnerships at the regional level.

“The best thing about it is there continues to be bipartisan recognition and support for workforce development,” said Dennis Bona, president of Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek. “It’s noteworthy that the president has demonstrated commitment to supporting community colleges as a primary vehicle for providing education and training to meet the needs of our employers.”

The act corrects some serious flaws in its predecessor, the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which was supposed to be reauthorized in 2003 and has been on autopilot ever since.

According to data from the National Skills Coalition, the funding for Workforce Investment Act programs fell from $4.7 billion in 2000 to less than $3 billion today, stunning given the loss of jobs and advance of technology and the resulting need for new skills in the intervening years.

Among the fixes the new legislation is the implementation uniform indicators of how well the act’s many programs are working. The Workforce Investment Act system included dozens of often overlapping programs with no common metrics for measuring outcomes or effectiveness.

The new act strips out 15 programs, 12 of which were unfunded last year, and streamlines other areas — reducing membership on state and local boards that govern workforce development and giving local business leaders a greater voice on these boards.

Such private-public relationships have been crucial to Battle Creek’s ability to respond to the needs of local employers and attract new investment. KCC partners with a range of local employers to provide work-based learning experiences for students. Examples include the Kellogg Co., Denso Manufacturing, Tenneco, Bronson Battle Creek and the Battle Creek Police Department.

KCC’s Regional Manufacturing Technology Center, located in the Fort Custer Industrial Park, has more than 40 active, company-sponsored training programs that help to ensure workers keep pace with emerging technology.

It’s both ironic and tragic that even amid high rates of unemployment, employers find it difficult to find qualified workers for high-skilled positions. The act aims to fix that by better aligning skills training to employer needs. It encourages more apprenticeships and on-the-job training, and it will measure success not by how many people seek help, but how many actually get jobs.

That’s good news for the community, and the country.