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The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is the best help the long-term unemployed have gotten in years

Lots of Americans have been filling out job applications for more than a year now. Can job training help them?
Lots of Americans have been filling out job applications for more than a year now. Can job training help them?
Justin Sullivan

Job training plays a curious role in American politics. On the one hand, nothing is less controversial than calls for a better-skilled workforce. On the other hand, over the years federal training initiatives have attracted a — somewhat deserved — reputation as a backwater of inefficient spending and unaccountable programs. Today, President Obama is signing into law the  Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed earlier this summer by the notoriously unproductive Congress has passed a compromise .

It's a revamping of the Workforce Investment Act, the Labor Department's main job training initiative. The Senate passed it overwhelmingly, 95-3, as did the House, 415-6. And the bill, while hardly a cure-all, is a step in the right direction.

The problem

The 1998 version of the Workforce Investment Act had some major problems. It was supposed to be reauthorized in 2003, but fell by the wayside during the Bush administration and has been on autopilot for over a decade. Neglected by Congress, its funding has slowly fallen off, even as politicians pay lip-service to the program's goals — according to data from the National Skills Coalition, funding for WIA programs has fallen from $4.7 billion in 2000 to around $2.9 billion today.

One reason Congress has been reluctant to pony up money is the need for structural reform. A 2011 GAO report found that the WIA system was a byzantine maze — 44 of the 47 WIA programs overlapped in scope with at least one other program. For example, all eight Native American-focused programs provided seven similar services but had different eligibility requirements.

On top of all that, WIA featured a messy accountability system. Different programs featured different metrics for different populations. Programs administered through job centers, which include things like matching people with jobs and helping them with workplace skills, had different metrics than adult education programs, which themselves had different metrics than programs for disabled people seeking help.

What the rewrite fixes

The new bill as passed by the Senate strips out 15 programs, 12 of which were unfunded last year, according to the National Skills Coalition. This represents a compromise between an older Senate version of the bill that had planned to cut 6 programs an older House version that would have cut 35. The bill will also streamline other areas, like by drastically cutting membership on state and local boards that govern workforce development. Those cuts will mean local business leaders will get greater voices in steering these boards' decisions, as National Journal reported.

In addition, there will now be more uniform indicators of how well WIA's many programs are working. The very act of making the data uniform means these Labor Department programs will finally all be clearly aimed at the same goals of re-employing Americans.

"It's saying, 'Here's some key things we want these programs working toward. we want these programs working toward getting people credentials,'" says Rachel Zinn, director of the Workforce Data Quality Campaign, an office of the National Skills Coalition that advocates for better data collection. "It's establishing clearly that there are some clear goals across programs."

Most importantly, several studies suggest job training programs under WIA work, though to varying degrees. A 2009 review of job training studies found that adult job training programs generally yield substantially higher wages for adult participants (as opposed to participants in youth programs).

That said, there are so many studies — from the Labor Department, from academics, from think tanks, all with different degrees of rigor — that figuring out exactly how helpful the WIA is has been nearly impossible. Some have found WIA programs to have modestly negative returns on investment. Ideally, the new yardsticks in the new bill will help solve that problem.

What the bill doesn't fix

One of the federal government's most expensive programs training programs, Job Corps, remains untouched, though many question its effectiveness.

Job Corps is a program aimed at disadvantaged youth, age 16 to 24, and several studies have found that youth programs are among the least effective in all of WIA. According to that 2011 GAO report, as of fiscal year 2009 that program spent nearly $1.8 billion on 59,000 Job Corps participants, or nearly $30,000 per person. One of the biggest studies to date, a 2008 analysis published in the American Economic Review, showed that while graduates of the program initially saw wage and employment gains, those wore off after four years for everyone except the oldest participants.

In general, job training programs tend to work better for adults than youths, says Gary Burtless, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

"That doesn't mean that we should reduce our efforts to try to help [youths]," he adds. "It means we should be much more systematic and careful in trying different strategies until we find some that work."

The new bill isn't so much an overhaul than a trimming with a few positive tweaks. The long delay also meant a bill that was created in the day of a booming, Clinton-era economy grew more and more out of date as the Great Recession creating a new pool of jobless Americans — the long-term unemployed who may need entirely new skill sets. For this reason, critics say the new bill should focus more firmly on longer-term investments in workers. As Politico reports, the bill does set aside 15 percent of funds for governors to use at their discretion, which may help states to keep their programs up to date.

The way forward

The question is what the end goal should be. In the opinion of Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce, the new WIOA act should be seen as a "placeholder" until the job training system is truly overhauled.

In his eyes, there are two main options: massively boost WIA funding or better coordinate Labor and Education Department programs. Education, he says, needs to focus less on graduating people from 4-year colleges and more on making sure people are going into programs, whether two- or four-year, that help them get into the workforce. Labor, meanwhile, needs to inform those students' decisions and better track how well educational programs are readying American workers.

"Either we turn the $6 billion [WIA system] into, say, a $200 billion system, which we're not going to do, or we use the horse that's available" — that is, the Education Department — "and we try to teach that horse some new tricks."