Unemployment: Are We Treating Symptoms or the Patient?

Stethoscope rests on employment applicationThis week, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing to learn more about the challenges and opportunities facing America’s schools and workplaces. In his opening remarks, Rep. John Kline (R-MN) who chairs the committee stated, “As policymakers, we have a lot of work ahead of us. Several key laws have expired and are in desperate need of reform.”

As the nation slowly recovers from the worst recession since the Great Depression, and concerns about the deficit remain front and center, some policymakers are tempted to consolidate the workforce system in the name of reform. While a case can be made that broad consolidation would lead to some savings and efficiencies, I believe — especially because several key laws are due for Congressional review — the current dialogue must shift from consolidation to promoting integration and collaboration among existing resources and programs.

How would an integrated and collaborative approach help people? Today, people who seek employment services and job training often face multiple employment challenges, each of which may be addressed by a separate system administered by a separate agency.

For example, a person may seek job training, yet they may lack the educational attainment needed to complete job training. Perhaps they also receive cash assistance. Under this example, a separate system addresses each challenge separately and in isolation of the other. In other words, they treat the symptoms. Yet who is treating the patient?

Indeed, several key acts are expired or due to expire this year. Among others, these include the Workforce Investment Act (which shapes our nation’s job training programs), the Carl D. Perkins Act (which shapes career and technical education in secondary and post-secondary institutions), and the Higher Education Act.

Because these key laws are due for Congressional review, Congress has an opportunity to do something revolutionary. It has an opportunity to create a cohesive and broad workforce system that leverages the unique strengths and resources that a number of systems bring to the table; while removing the systemic barriers that allow people to fall through the cracks.

Considering the increasingly polarized political landscape, it is difficult to envision Congress developing a bipartisan framework that would achieve such lofty, yet worthy, goals. However, at the time, it must have been difficult to envision the enactment of many then-audacious national advancements that we now take for granted.

Federal policymakers have advanced much more audacious achievements in the past, and they should recognize an opportunity to do so again to build stronger communities that support people in finding jobs and employers in finding skilled workers.