Workers Receive Bigger Voice in New Workforce Training Legislation

July 14, 2014

In a rare display of bipartisan cooperation, the U.S. Congress has approved new federal workforce development legislation, including provisions that stand to increase the voice of workers in the system.

The House passed (415–6) the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) July 9. The act was based upon earlier Senate legislation (S. 1356) that was a product of intensive negotiations between Democratic and Republican officials.

WIOA reauthorizes the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which has established a network of some 2,500 American Job Centers across the country and offers job training services to adults, youth, dislocated workers and other groups.

From the perspective of workers and their unions, WIOA offers notable improvements in the system’s governance bodies and innovations that potentially offer greater guidance to workers in achieving their career goals. The bill also encourages the formation of joint skill training partnerships.

The decentralized (and chronically underfunded) federal workforce system is operated by a network of state and local Workforce Development Boards. Under current law and regulations, each state and local board is required to have two labor representatives nominated by labor councils and appointed by chief elected officials. The new legislation increases labor representation to 20% of the members of state and local board members, with that category including a representative from a joint apprenticeship program. This change will increase the capacity of labor to monitor the expenditure of funds and help to ensure program quality.

The WIOA establishes the concept of peer career counselors in the workplace as part of federal workforce policy. It allows workforce boards to support the training of “workplace learning advisers,” defined as individuals who have the knowledge and skills necessary to advise employees about skill development and job training services to support their career goals.

This is a purely voluntary program that does not impose any new requirements on employers. The intent is to encourage workers to obtain the education and skill training needed to contribute to enterprise success and progress in their careers.

This sort of system has been established in the United Kingdom for many years, where it is popular among employers and supported by Labour and Conservative governments alike; more than 22,000 workers there have been trained as learning representatives. In the United States, this labor market innovation has been championed by the AFL-CIO and many of its affiliated unions, including the AFT.

The legislation includes provisions on the formation of sector partnerships, a concept that has been implemented in states and advanced on the federal level by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in the bipartisan SECTORS Act of 2013 (S. 1226). Some of the most successful sectoral organizations have been joint labor–management skill training programs such as the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership and the AFSCME District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund, based in Philadelphia. WIOA requires that an industry or sector partnership working with a local or state board must include one or more representatives of labor organizations or central labor councils.

A detailed comparison of WIOA with current law is available from the National Skills Coalition. In “Congress rewrites jobs training law,” Maggie Severns of explains some of the motivations behind Republican and Democratic support for the compromise legislation. The AFL-CIO will conduct a more comprehensive analysis of the implications of WIOA for workers and unions in the weeks ahead. If you would like more information, contact me at

Daniel Marschall is with the AFL-CIO Policy Department.