A wide-ranging jobs bill containing improvements to boost youth workforce development programs will soon be on its way to President Barack Obama's desk, after what's expected to be a swift passage through the House Wednesday.
The bipartisan, bicameral effort is a revamped version of the Workforce Investment Act, which has been due for reauthorization since 2003. It provides billions of dollars in funding for job training and education programs that aim to help young people and adults avoid unemployment. The White House has indicated Obama will sign the bill, expressing its support in a statement after the measure moved through the Senate June 25.
"In short, this legislation will increase access, eliminate waste, promote accountability, empower job creators and give Americans access to the resources [they need] to fill in-demand jobs," said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.
During debate over the bill on the House floor Wednesday, representatives emphasized the need to streamline and improve job training and education opportunities to bolster economic progress. Several cited research from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce that found the United States will face a shortage of 11 million workers with postsecondary education or training by 2022.
"For America to work, we need effective education and workforce development programs to strengthen the middle class," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. "If we allow ourselves to continue down this dangerous path, we'll only see feeble economic growth for the foreseeable future."
Part of the bill focuses on adjustments to the Job Corps program, which will be revised to enhance services for at-risk youth, including those who may drop out of high school. The Job Corps program provides career pathway opportunities, and the bill raises the maximum age of eligibility from 21 to 24 for the program. Of funding spent on youths, states will be required to dedicate 75 percent to serving out-of-school individuals.
"You're really reaching that population that we think is so important, and making sure they have access to those youth services," says Melanie Anderson, director of government affairs for Opportunity Nation, a national campaign focused on expanding economic mobility. The group recently released a report in conjunction with Measure America that found nearly 15 percent of American youths between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school nor working.
During the floor debate, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said that "by investing in out-of-school youth, we are investing in the front end" so the government and taxpayers do not have to pay later on.
The bill also expands vocational education opportunities for students with disabilities to prevent those individuals from being "funneled into sub-minimum wage jobs," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. The changes emphasize transition services for students with disabilities who are moving from secondary to postsecondary education or from school to the workforce.
And although the bill eliminates 15 programs previously in place, including the Obama-backed Workforce Innovation Fund, some say consolidation was necessary to eliminate the bureaucratic red tape that often confused those seeking job training services and prevented organizations, community colleges and others from getting involved. A 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office found more than 40 of the existing 47 programs authorized under the Workforce Investment Act overlapped in some way with at least one other program.
"Quite frankly, our nation’s job training system is broken," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. "We have too many ineffective programs, too much bureaucracy and very little accountability. The voices of job creators are stifled, state and local leaders are tied up in red tape, and hard-earned taxpayer dollars are wasted."
States also will have a 15 percent funding reserve that could possibly be used to fund services from eliminated programs, Anderson says.
After the strong showing of bipartisan cooperation, education advocates say they hope legislators will turn their focus to the backlog of other education bills awaiting reauthorization, including the Higher Education Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.
"Everyone – whether is was organizations, service providers, advocacy organizations, the hill – really got it in their head that they needed to get this done, and the perfect shouldn't be the enemy of the good," Anderson says. "Maybe it’s not the most exciting bill, but there are some really great changes in it, and this bipartisan support is so key."
Both the House and Senate have released proposed bills to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. The House education committee on Thursday is expected to begin a markup of its bills, which focus on promoting competency-based education, improving public information provided about colleges and promoting financial literacy about financing a college education.
"Let this be the starting point for action on many other vital issues that need our attention," Foxx said.