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Economic Growth, Economic Prosperity, and the new WIOA

By John Colborn

Success of new workforce legislation and federal job-training efforts requires the help of colleges, industry, community members and more.

In the wake of President Obama signing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act into law July 22 and as Vice President Biden releasing his action plan for a more effective, job-driven training system, it’s worth taking stock of how the country and its workforce are faring in the recovery.

There is much to celebrate. Unemployment rates have dropped. Job creation ticks steadily along. Employers forecast continuing job growth. And many Americans have availed themselves of education and training since the recession began, resulting in steadily increasing educational attainment since 2006.

But, it’s all too clear to most households in America that many challenges remain. Top among them: employers are not finding the skilled workers they need. At the Aspen Institute’s Skills for America’s Future (SAF) program, we have been tracking dozens of national employer surveys, and again and again employers report that they are not finding candidates with the skills they need to compete and grow their businesses. Furthermore, the skills challenge is not likely to abate. Most analysts suggest that the number of jobs requiring an associate degree or industry certification will grow disproportionately, while jobs requiring a high school diploma or less will shrink. Indeed, even as 5 million Americans with at least some college credits gained employment since 2007, roughly the same number of people with high school education or less actually lost jobs. To be sure, there are many necessary strategies for growing the economy and the wages of American workers, but we know that key among them is investing in the capacities of the American workforce.

Growing a skilled and competitive workforce is a bipartisan challenge. Even gridlocked Washington managed to come together to pass the long-delayed workforce development bill. It represents a modest but helpful evolution of the nation’s employment and training system. It consolidates and streamlines federal programs and puts into place better systems for ensuring accountability for results and continuing improvement. It encourages more widespread use of proven practices highlighted in the study Biden unveiled today on how to make federal training programs a better fit for employers’ needs. Specific interventions have been proven to work: industry-targeted workforce strategies, the use of industry-recognized credentials, working with employer consortia, and “learn and earn” strategies such as on-the-job training and apprenticeships.

The success of the new workforce legislation and the administration’s efforts to grow the economy, however, will depend on complementary efforts from employers, trainers and educators, workforce intermediary organizations, local and state officials, labor unions, and nonprofits of all types.

We’re committed to expanding economic opportunity for American workers and enhancing the competitiveness of U.S. employers. SAF announced the following initiatives:

  • Guide to Expand and Improve Regional Partnerships. In response to requests for sharing best practices to support replication of its demand-driven model, our partner organization, Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, is finalizing an online “playbook” of core principles and materials for organizations across the country. A sneak preview can be found online now at We will be hosting a series of Playbook activities around the country this year.
  • Laying the Groundwork for Fall Apprenticeship Competition. In partnership with a range of national organizations, SAF will undertake an outreach program for prospective applicants to the U.S. Department of Labor’s funding competition focusing on apprenticeship. Anyone interested in participating in upcoming webinars can sign up for our mailing list here.
  • Encouraging Greater Employer-Community College Engagement. To complement federal efforts to develop job-driven workforce development practices, SAF will survey state policy makers and develop a policy maker’s guide to support state officials and community college leaders who seek to work closely with employers to foster better outcomes for job seekers. SAF will also work directly with community colleges to help them assess their current employer engagement and to suggest strategies for expanding employer partnerships to help students get jobs.

We look forward to working across sectors to advance economic growth, confronting challenges facing today’s workers and employers.

John Colborn

is executive director of Skills for America’s Future.

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