Move over, Taylor Swift.

Last week, right after dropping their hit single “A Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act” the Foxx-Scott duo followed it up with a second track, “A Stronger Workforce for America Act.” The bill passed the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on December 12.

A Stronger Workforce for America Act would reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) – the primary source of federal funds for workforce development programs (and the 3,000 American Job Centers that help Americans connect to employment services). WIOA was last modified in 2014, and has been up for reauthorization since 2020.   

In addition to the big provisions that are garnering most of the attention – like dedicating a majority of funds to training– it also includes some interesting provisions to improve the quality of workforce development programs and ensure alignment with employer needs:  

Quality indicators cribbed from ESSA tiers of evidence

The new bill aims to better target training dollars to programs that produce the desired outcomes.  It offers a definition of “evidence-based” that will probably feel similar to anyone who’s read the ESSA tiers of evidence (the evidence standards developed for the Every Student Succeed Act, most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which guides federal funds for K-12 education).  

“Evidence based” is defined as:

  • Strong evidence from a well-designed, well-implemented experimental study;
  • Moderate evidence from a well-designed, well-implemented quasi-experimental study;
  • Promising evidence from a well-designed, well-implemented correlational study with controls for selection bias; or
  • Demonstrated rationale based on research findings (and that includes ongoing efforts to measure impact).

States will be required to include an analysis of how their workforce development activities align with the four levels of evidence as part of their unified state plan.

More incumbent worker training — sort of

One of the biggest challenges with the current WIOA legislation is the lack of significant funding for incumbent workers. In a moment when artificial intelligence and automation may put certain industries and jobs at risk, the ability to future-proof individuals by training them for new jobs or reconfigured jobs while they’re still employed is valuable. 

The new bill offers a few ways to upskill incumbent workers:

The Critical Industry Skills Fund: dedicated funding for upskilling workers in critical industries in each state as determined by the governor, and funded by a set-aside of up to 10% of a state’s federal funding for selected programs.  The fund will award performance-based payments for providing skill development programs.

  • Some local groups are already expressing concern about this additional set-aside. 

Incumbent worker upskilling accounts: training accounts to help incumbent workers upskill to fill a role in an in-demand industry, and/or earn a higher wage.

  • The bill increases the maximum amount of funds that local boards may reserve for incumbent worker training  from 20% to 30% of local funds for adult and displaced workers. The incumbent worker training accounts, however, will only be funded with a small percentage of these funds– a fraction of a fraction of the overall local spending. 
  • House Democrats’ summary of the new bill says that incumbent worker training is relevant “particularly in areas with low unemployment or high labor force participation.”  As has historically been the case with WIOA and upskilling, funding for incumbent workers may be limited to the rare cases when supply of funds outstrips demand in other areas (e.g., for displaced workers). 

Is “employer-directed skills development” the new “industry-recognized apprenticeship”? 

Despite significant focus on apprenticeship from this Administration and the last two, along with many others over the past several years, the term “apprenticeship” barely appears in the new language (though existing mentions of apprenticeship remain).  

There is, however, a new provision for employer-directed skills development (taking the place, in many parts of WIOA, of what was previously called “customized training”).

It’s not called apprenticeship but, as a no-cost-to-the-worker, employment-guaranteed training program, it shares some DNA with apprenticeships.  Employer-directed skills development diverges from (registered) apprenticeship in important ways, though: there aren’t quality standards, and learners aren’t (necessarily) working and earning while they’re learning, or given opportunities for on-the-job learning. TBD on whether this approach leads to the same quality of outcomes as apprenticeship.

Employers pay part of the cost of training (on a sliding scale based on their number of employees– paying between 10% and 50% of the cost).  To contract with their local board to offer training, employers must identify the skills being taught and commit to employ the workers upon completion of the training. 

While this bill has been approved in committee, it still has a long way to go.  It’s a positive sign that it has bipartisan support in the House (and a quick passage out of committee), but it still will need to compete for the time and attention to make it onto the House floor and the Senate calendar.