Democratic front-runner Sen. Barack Obama outlined a plan in mid-February to increase workforce development funding and reform the federal law that governs the programs.
During a South Carolina debate earlier this year, likely Republican standard bearer Sen. John McCain assured laid-off workers they would be retrained for information technology jobs if he becomes president.
Meanwhile, President Bush has proposed reducing federal workforce programs by more than $1 billion in his budget for the next fiscal year, according to the Workforce Alliance, an advocacy group.
Bush’s move doesn’t make sense during an economic downturn, according to Rachel Gragg, federal policy director for the organization.
“To cut funding for education and training right now seems very shortsighted,” she says.
Under Bush’s plan, several training programs would be consolidated into one initiative called “career ad- vancement accounts.” The individual accounts, which have been previously rejected by Congress, are designed to give workers more control over retraining dollars.
The administration would spend $2.8 billion on the accounts. The separate workforce programs that would be rolled into them currently receive $3.6 billion.
Mason Bishop, deputy assistant secretary of labor for the Employment & Training Administration, says streamlining federal workforce programs into career accounts would eliminate bureaucracy and substantially increase annual training—from 189,000 workers to 600,000.
“We would like to provide better access to education and training,” Bishop says. “The way the system is structured, that’s not happening as efficiently as it should.”
Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill oppose career accounts. Last year, Congress restored training funding when Bush proposed cuts of similar magnitude.
But Democrats acquiesced to a $250 million rescission in workforce funds that had been allocated to states but had not yet spent. Advocates say that the states were going to utilize the money before it was yanked.
Reforming complicated federal training programs would require congressional reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act.
That effort has languished for several years. The House Education and Labor Committee held a couple hearings on the workforce law in 2007, but legislation has not been introduced.
The delay is being caused in part by a busy congressional calendar. Another reason is that organized labor has qualms about a potential reduction of union jobs if federal employment offices are restructured.
“The reauthorization process, in the way it’s going now, is not beneficial to our members,” says Greg Jefferson, a legislative aide for the AFL-CIO. “These are concerns we’ve been bringing up for years.”
Labor wants to increase funding for training initiatives but not change the underlying law.
“Money has to be in the pot for these programs to work, and that’s not what we’re seeing right now,” Jefferson says. “It’s not as if labor is saying, ‘Get rid of the programs.’ ”
The Workforce Investment Act is not the only training initiative Congress has to address.
Also looming is reauthorization for a program to help workers who have lost their jobs due to trade—another issue that is getting attention from presidential candidates.