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Senate Duo Punches Time Clock on Job-Training Bill

Bipartisan negotiations to overhaul federal job-training programs are picking up again, with Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., hoping to usher a bill through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee before the August recess.

“We don’t have a set timeline yet,” said a labor policy staffer for Isakson, who noted that HELP Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., have indicated that Isakson and Murray should “have something to move here this summer.”

The duo has been working behind the scenes since the start of this Congress, building on a draft bill they crafted last year along with Harkin and then-ranking member Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo.

The teamwork stands in stark contrast to partisan House debate in March over a GOP-sponsored job-training overhaul (HR 803) that passed with the support of only two Democrats. But both Senate proponents contend it’s the only way for the legislation to move forward.

“It won’t move if it’s not bipartisan,” said another Senate aide helping to craft the measure.

Democrats and Republicans agree that the 1998 Workforce Investment Act (PL 105-220), which expired in 2003, needs updating. And, according to the aide, both sides of the aisle had already signed off on 95 percent of the policy language in last year’s Senate draft bill that Murray and Isakson began working with.

“We used that draft as a starting point so we wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Isakson’s labor staffer said. “We have made a lot of changes and more changes are to come. But negotiations are ongoing and we’re making progress.”

Isakson and Murray recently floated a broad outline of their latest draft to various stakeholders, including the National Governors Association, the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, indicating they have a solid framework for the reauthorization. Their bill will likely be unveiled toward the end of this month or in early July.

“So far everyone is conceptually OK with our outline,” Isakson’s staffer said. “Everyone seems to be encouraged by our outline.”

Although this year’s bill will be somewhat different, the earlier Senate proposal put in place a national job-training system and eliminated the piecemeal, state-by-state programs that currently exist. It also created an “innovation fund” to spur states to form partnerships with business and education groups to train workers for the jobs in greatest demand.

Issues that are still being fine-tuned include ways to streamline existing programs further, ensure a more efficient delivery of services, provide states and local communities more control over the programs, and find better transparency and oversight mechanisms to identify ineffective programs.

Pressure for Congress to reauthorize the law mounted after a 2011 Government Accountability Office analysis found that 44 of the 47 federal job-training programs overlap in some way. In its report, the GAO wrote that “consolidating administrative structures” would help increase efficiencies.

At least one major roadblock still stands in the way of a Senate agreement — one that’s widely blamed for crippling last year’s reauthorization efforts. The makeup of the local workforce boards, among other minor issues, caused Harkin to postpone the markup of last year’s bill at least three times before momentum petered out altogether and the negotiators came to an impasse.

“It was definitely a sticky issue last go-around,” Isakson’s labor staffer said.

Workforce boards are the central nerve center of the current law, where job-seekers go to find employment or learn new skills, and employers go to search for new hires with specific skills. The boards are responsible for directing federal, state and local funding for job-training programs. Various stakeholders are appointed to the board, including business leaders, union representatives and advocates for special populations, such as the homeless or veterans.

The specific number of board members represented by each stakeholder group has evolved into a point of contention in both chambers, with Republicans pushing to boost the number of appointees from the business community. The House-passed reauthorization bill requires two-thirds of the members of each local workforce board to be employers. But Democrats blasted the legislation as “ideological” and argued that the quota diminishes the voices of other key stakeholders.

To be sure, Democrats acknowledge the importance of the business community to workforce boards, especially for providing a snapshot of emerging industries, jobs and in-demand skills. But they see the majority requirement as potentially resulting in limiting opportunities for special populations, such as those with disabilities, English language learners, homeless people or veterans.

Those who serve on workforce training boards emphasize the importance of the business community.

“For the workforce board to try and weave a workforce development system that responds to the needs of the businesses in that region, that’s pretty complicated work,” said Ron Painter, CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards, which among many other things, lobbies to secure the role of the business sector in workforce development.

Painter, who supports the House proposal to require two-thirds of each board to be business leaders, underscored several successful business-led workforce placement programs around the country, including partnerships between Mississippi and the Toyota car company; Dallas and the logistics industry; and Lancaster, Pa., and the food-processing industry.

“My most valuable members are the business leaders,” agreed Steve Partridge, CEO of Charlotte Works, a workforce board in Charlotte, N.C. “If we didn’t know the employers’ needs, we wouldn’t be training people on the skills that are in demand.”

Although Isakson’s labor policy staffer noted that the two offices are in the process of finalizing an agreement on the workforce board membership, the issue will likely remain a sticking point through the committee markup, especially if the Senate measure ever gets to the point of a conference with the House bill.

In fact, the House GOP proposal leaves much to be desired for Democrats, chief of which is the proposal to consolidate 35 employment and training programs into a Workforce Investment Fund to serve as a single source of support for employers and job seekers. Funding for those programs would be merged into a block grant to the states.

Democrats argue that consolidating programs into a block grant would shift money away from underserved populations that some of the training efforts were set up to help.

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