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The Trump administration's proposal to combine the Department of Labor (DOL) with the Department of Education might reduce some redundancies, experts say, but could also be detrimental to the DOL's mission and workforce development efforts.
The White House Office of Management and Budget said the proposal "would allow the federal government to address the educational and skill needs of American students and workers in a coordinated way, eliminating duplication of effort between the two agencies and maximizing the effectiveness of skill-building efforts."
The merger is one piece of a broader reorganization of the federal government.
"The federal government is long overdue for a serious overhaul," said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which oversees both departments. She said the proposed Department of Education and the Workforce is "recognition of the clear relationship between education policy at every level and the needs of the growing American workforce."
The new Cabinet-level department would be split into four main agencies focused on K-12 education; enforcement of worker protections; research and administration; and the workforce and higher education.
The American Workforce and Higher Education Administration would be charged with ensuring that U.S. workers possess the skills necessary to succeed on the job. The agency would bring together workforce development programs from the DOL and programs from the Department of Education overseeing higher education, vocational education and rehabilitation.
The changes require Congressional approval, however, which isn't likely to be gained in the Senate, especially in an election year, experts agreed.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has not taken a position on the administration's proposal, citing the lack of details. "Clearly there is a nexus between education policy and the workplace," said Mike Aitken, SHRM's vice president of government affairs. "Periodic review of the mission, roles and functions of federal agencies is necessary and healthy and we certainly look forward to participating in that discussion," he added.
"To the extent that the work of the two agencies can be harmonized, that's a good thing," said Jonathan A. Segal, a partner in the Philadelphia office of Duane Morris and the managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute, which provides training for human resource professionals. "But I'm not sure that the work of either department can be done sufficiently if they are merged, because the mission of each is too great to be combined. There is some overlap, but that doesn't mean the duplication justifies the elimination of the separate departments."
Labor unions representing federal workers oppose the plan, saying it is a scheme to weaken the agencies.
Segal thinks a potentially weakened DOL is problematic for both workers and employers. If the agencies are combined, he said, there may be less enforcement of wage and hour or workplace safety laws, which will hurt workers.
"Employers may viscerally approve of having one less regulatory agency to deal with, but I think that's shortsighted," he said. A smaller, less-resourced DOL may not have the capability to focus on employer outreach, and the perception of a diminished federal regulator may lead states to fill in the gap. "I would expect that states will double down on worker protections in wage and hour enforcement, pay equity and leave laws," Segal said.
Proposal Cuts Workforce Development Programs by More Than Half
The revamp includes a plan to trim federal workforce development programs down from 40 to 16. Since 2011, the Government Accountability Office has identified workforce development as an area of duplication and overlap and has suggested that consolidating administration would enhance efficiency.
The White House plan aligns with the administration's stated priority of supporting higher-education programs to train students more directly to join the workforce, including plans to expand access to apprenticeships and coordinating the use of Pell Grants for short-term job training. Both departments also currently co-administer the regulations under the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, designed to improve the nation's public workforce system.
"We certainly agree that the federal government could do a better job at supporting alignment across skills investments," said Kermit Kaleba, federal policy director for the National Skills Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group advocating for investments in workforce development. "The higher education, career and technical education and workforce development system could be better aligned at the federal, state and local levels, and employers and job seekers should be receiving the highest quality services that they can."
But sweeping program consolidation and elimination is not the solution, Kaleba added. "The idea that the way you get things to work more effectively is that you make fewer things is a bit of an intellectual shortcut," he said. "It's an easy way of avoiding the hard work. What would be more useful is a plan to better support best practices and better align education and workforce development, expand work-based learning, and make it easier for adult learners to get access to skills. Consolidation doesn't solve those issues."
The White House is reportedly also considering just moving a few programs from the DOL over to the Department of Education. In response to a 2017 White House executive order seeking proposals for federal agency consolidation, the Office of Management and Budget proposed moving certain DOL programs that administer workforce training for young people, including Job Corps and YouthBuild to the Education Department. Other ideas included redirecting funding for the DOL's adult and dislocated worker programs into expanding Pell Grants, run by the Education Department, for worker readiness training and sending H-1B visa fees that are currently used for short-term job training programs at DOL to the Education Department to boost high school science, technology engineering and math education.
"To move aspects of what DOL does to Education where there's material overlap and potential value from both administrative and mission viewpoints, such as workplace readiness, then that's logical," Segal said. "We want to get people ready for work, so not having the two agencies sharing their resources would be a shame."