Federal Skills Policy Update

By Amy Shields

Talent and workforce are among the top issues facing communities today. While critical workforce and education legislation happens at the state level, federal legislation governs and appropriates dollars for many workforce programs on which communities rely. If your chamber is involved with these programs, we hope the following summary of the major federal legislation related to education and skills will be beneficial.

When it comes to expanding access to high-quality career and technical education (CTE), The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) is vital. Perkins V was signed into law in 2018 and focuses on CTE programming career exploration, and career guidance and academic counseling. The bill also emphasizes the importance of bringing workforce development stakeholders to the table during state and local CTE planning processes, including businesses, adult education providers and community-based organizations. Additionally, the act expanded the definition of “special populations” and allowed states to increase how much funding they can set aside to focus on specific areas of the state.

Congress is increasingly recognizing the importance of having the business community at the table for work-based learning programs. The Promoting Apprenticeships through Regional Training Networks for Employers’ Required Skills (PARTNERS) Act focuses on investing in public-private partnerships to promote work-based learning. The legislation would establish a grant program to support and expand sector partnerships and work-based learning programs with a focus on small and medium-sized businesses. Similarly, the Community College to Career Fund in Higher Education Act (CC2C) would create a competitive grant program to fund collaboration between community colleges and businesses. Grants would support work-based learning activities as well as non-tuition support services to help low-income students develop in-demand skills while earning college credit.

Higher education institutions are responsible for critical paths along the cradle-to-career pipeline. The Higher Education Act (HEA) authorizes and provides eligibility framework around various federal aid programs, like Pell Grants, and includes other rules and regulations around issues accreditation and institutional aid. HEA was last reauthorized in 2008, and while Congress has passed extensions, there has not been a comprehensive reauthorization. In discussions around reauthorization for HEA, college affordability, campus safety and college access are frequently mentioned.

Two other bills are often discussed in conjunction with the HEA reauthorization. The Jumpstart Our Businesses by Supporting Students Act (JOBS) proposes to expand Pell Grant eligibility to students participating in high-quality, short-term job training programs. Under this act, programs offered at higher education institutions that are at least 150 hours over eight weeks would qualify for Pell if the program leads to an industry-recognized credential or certificate and meets the needs of the local workforce.

Questions of how to evaluate quality are often raised when the JOBS Act is discussed, and proponents often mention the simultaneous need for the College Transparency Act. This proposed legislation would create a secure federal data system to connect existing federal data systems. This system would combine student-level graduation and employment data, allowing future students and others to evaluate the outcomes from specific higher education programs.

When it comes to workforce development investments at the state level, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) may be the most significant single piece of federal legislation. WIOA was designed to bring together and coordinate Federal programs that focus on skills and workforce development. The legislation prioritizes aligning and streamlining various workforce programs and authorizes programs for specific populations, like individuals with disabilities and disconnected youth. WIOA has employer-focused components to ensure that services provided by workforce development programs are aligned to the needs of employers and that program participants learn in-demand skills. WIOA was signed into law in 2014 and is up for reauthorization this year.

It is also important to remember that workforce development funding is embedded in other major legislation that does not directly relate to workforce and skills. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is part of the Nutrition Title of the Farm Bill and was reauthorized in 2018. In order to receive benefits, recipients must meet certain work requirements, so the federal government provides funding for states to operate the SNAP Employment & Training Program (SNAP E&T), which focuses on training and work experience.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) provides state block grants to assist needy families in becoming self-sufficient. Like SNAP, TANF has work requirements, and states must hit certain workforce participation benchmarks to receive funding. Education and training participation often do not count as workforce participation under TANF, so recipients must usually be employed to qualify for benefits. Since its reauthorization date in 2010 Congress has passed extensions for the legislation that includes TANF, but there has not been a comprehensive reauthorization.

Many of the bills mentioned above could be game changers for education and workforce development. Businesses must have opportunities to advocate for policies that create a well-prepared workforce for the future. That is why ACCE has partnered with the National Skills Coalition and its Business Leaders United program. Through this partnership, ACCE has provided opportunities for chambers to stay informed on federal legislation, advocate on the Hill with others in the industry and lead coalitions to develop critical policies in targeted states across the country. If you would like to learn more or get involved in this work, please reach out to Amy Shields (ashields@acce.org).

Amy Shields is ACCE's senior manager of community advancement. You can contact her at ashields@acce.org or (703) 998-3530.
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