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Congress Should Pass Workforce Training Bill | Commentary

The Senate can dramatically improve how workforce development pipelines operate in local communities by approving the Strengthening Employment Clusters to Organize Regional Success Act.

This legislation, passed by the House of Representatives in 2010 with bipartisan, unanimous support, could face a vote in the Senate as soon as this fall. This no-cost amendment requires that state and local entities work hand-in-hand with business leaders to identify the industry sectors that will drive growth, specify the skills local employers require now and into the future, and design programs that directly respond to these needs.

There has never been a better time for this bill. Even as the economy recovers, millions of Americans are still out of work. Stronger engagement and partnerships with employers as called for in the SECTORS Act is essential to being able to develop the sector-specific workforce training and credentialing to better prepare those who are out of work and provide them with the right skills and competencies.

Specifically, the SECTORS Act will provide federal grants to states and other organizations to foster the creation of industry-led workforce partnerships. They would be required to partner with industry to identify critical sectors to their economic growth. And they would need to institute processes that effectively measure performance after programs are in place. Monies going to ineffective programs would then be redirected to more effective ones. Sounds sensible, logical and a wise use of taxpayer money. But can it work?

Fortunately, experience has already shown these industry-led partnerships work — and with great success. For the past five years, the National Fund for Workforce Solutions has partnered with employers, educators, and philanthropic and community leaders in 30 communities across the country to do just that. By bringing industry leaders to the table to develop a training pipeline, local employers are gaining access to a workforce with the skills they need.

The National Fund supports regional collaboratives across the country that are actively involved in changing business practices and public policies. For example, in Massachusetts, the SkillWorks collaborative, and the Workforce Solutions Group, its public policy grantee, have achieved significant improvements in state workforce and education policy and funding, including new investments in skills training, improved pathways to community college, and employer-based internship and job programs. SkillWorks and partners worked to establish the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund, which has allocated $23 million to date to sector-based training collaboratives, which hire and train people in industries with critical vacancies. These resources dovetail with the state’s economic development agency and support the fast-growing innovation economy. And in Washington state, the SkillUp Washington collaborative serving Seattle and King County has expanded workforce training opportunities, partnering with the community college system to move low-skilled young adults to community college more quickly and making college work better for low-income working adults.

Since 2007, the National Fund model has helped provide career development services to more than 50,000 job seekers and lower-wage workers and contributed to more than 28,000 degrees, certificates and industry-recognized credentials being awarded. The success of these programs have resulted in the support of 14 national funders — including the Weinberg Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Ford Foundation and JPMorgan Chase — and leveraged $192 million in matching funds from 476 local funders.

By passing the SECTORS Act, partnerships and programs like those established by the National Fund could be expanded and strengthened. Similar programs could be replicated in other cities. As a result, more workers would be guided to careers that provide for a better way of life for themselves and their families. Communities would be strengthened as more citizens move up to better-paying jobs. More employers would more easily find the qualified workforce they need. And strengthening the pool of skilled workers in growing industries would enable our nation to better compete in the global economy, both now and in the future.

In short, the SECTORS Act would create real partnerships between industry, education, workers and job seekers. It is the best way to address the skills gap, which is slowing down the recovery in communities throughout the country.

Fred Dedrick is executive director of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions.

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