Just about everyone agrees that the U.S. job training system has functioned poorly for years, bogged down by red tape and a confusing array of programs. Millions of jobs remain unfilled, while millions of Americans cannot find work. Too often, educators and employers talk past one another when seeking solutions.
But HR and training professionals have a new tool with which to address the skills gap: It’s the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which became law on July 22, 2014. It replaces the antiquated Workforce Investment Act.
The new law is not a panacea, and it will be a while before regulations and guidance show exactly how it will work. But those who are recognized as innovators in workforce development—despite the limitations of the old law--are extremely enthusiastic about the new legislation and its potential to spread some of the success that they have achieved.
Among these innovators is Pauline Vernon, director of workforce development for the Memphis (Tenn.) Bioworks Foundation, a nonprofit economic development agency that focuses on bioscience. Her organization currently has three job training programs and gains crucial advice from an employer advisory committee for each program. Vernon, who chairs the Workforce Development Committee of SHRM—Memphis Chapter 134, sees an important yet practical role for HR under the WIOA.
“You start out with a conversation.” HR and other business leaders talk about the skills companies need for vacant positions, and educators discuss how they can provide those skills to people willing to learn them. In some communities like Memphis, these conversations are already happening. The new law encourages many more such collaborations.
Vernon notes that college degrees do not always prepare students for today’s jobs. Sometimes a skill-specific credential is necessary. Often, the training needed to earn such a credential can be accomplished on an employer’s site and in as little as a few weeks. Occasionally, the employer helps design the curriculum to ensure that trainees become productive employees. Says Vernon, that’s when “the magic starts happening” and educators, HR and other business leaders become true partners.
Edward Gordon, a workforce education expert and president of Imperial Consulting Corp. in Chicago, says the WIOA should foster a higher level of creativity in narrowing the skills gap.
He says the law will direct more students to learn skills related to business sectors where there are emerging job opportunities. In addition, says Gordon, the law’s emphasis on adult learning will help not only the unemployed but also Americans who have jobs but need additional skills to advance their careers. Most importantly, he says, the WIOA will encourage local workforce development boards to customize training in consultation with businesses in order to fill vacant jobs.
Workforce training experts such as Vernon and Gordon say the new law has the potential to transform job training in the U.S. The seismic shift, says Gordon: “has already started.”