Congressional Job Training Debate Focuses on a False Choice

Model family walks while puzzle pieces lift up under their feetThe editorial page of this Sunday’s Washington Post featured the article, Congress debates the future of job-training program.” Rather than presenting a refreshing and balanced perspective on an important, yet long-delayed, piece of legislation, the editorial rehashed an old partisan debate over a false choice: Should the nation’s network of job training programs be consolidated or not?

Recently the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act (H.R. 803) passed the House, largely along party lines. The bill proposes to consolidate 35 job training programs into one block grant to states. During the House debate, House Republicans argued that the broad consolidation bill would reduce bureaucracy and simplify the workforce system. Democrats countered that the House-passed bill fails to ensure that vulnerable and hard-to-employ populations would be adequately served.

While one would think that each side could acknowledge the other’s concern and seek common ground, what lies between the proverbial party lines (“compromise,” but shhh, don’t say that word too loud) is a politician’s No Man’s Land.

Today, we battle stubbornly high unemployment and the global economy is becoming increasingly competitive for U.S. businesses and employers. It’s a complex problem with a complex solution that requires a bipartisan approach. Rather than seeking compromise, policymakers and news outlets present it as a simple and clear-cut choice.

  • Option 1: Blow the whole thing up and start over.
  • Option 2: Don’t change a thing.

Both options make for poor public policy. In the case of job training, this false choice has only proven to exacerbate policy-setting paralysis on Capitol Hill and result in a job training law (known as the Workforce Investment Act) that is now nearly 15 years old and nearly a decade overdue for reauthorization. Nobody wins – not Republicans, not Democrats, and certainly not workers and employers.

The ugly secret is that what makes good public policy often makes for poor politics and gets little mainstream media attention. To be fair, the Post’s editorial noted that “the entire debate, alas, is light on data and heavy on politics,” but it failed to call out policymakers for putting party politics before policy.

Had the Washington Post’s editorial board dug a little deeper, it would have discovered a thoughtful alternative, “Workforce Stakeholders Group: Statement on Reforming Job Training Programs in America,”which had been entered into the public record at the last minute of a recent and politically-charged House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing on the SKILLS Act.

Goodwill Industries was proactively engaged in the development of the Workforce Stakeholders Group’s statement which urges policymakers to refocus their attention on the following question:

“What outcomes do we want from our workforce system, and what elements are needed in order to put the system in a position to achieve them in a constantly changing environment?”

That’s the type of question that voters send policymakers to Washington to solve, but the solution is unlikely to get the juicy headlines that political junkies crave. So be it.

Here’s the juicy headline that job seekers and businesses crave: “Best-trained U.S. workers fuel record economic growth.”