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Congress Moving on Workforce Development
Each year, the U.S. government spends $18 billion on improving its workforce, and most policy makers agree that it’s one of the best investments our country can make. Any job in this modern economy requires a unique set of skills commensurate with essential training or education. And of course, a more highly skilled workforce is a key prerequisite to economic growth. But those who have tried to evaluate the effectiveness of current federal workforce development programs — including the Government Accountability Office(GAO) — report that it is not easily measured. There are at least 47 such programs, many of which serve overlapping purposes and offer inconclusive, poorly documented results.
The House took its first stab at sweeping workforce program reform last month with the passage of the SKILLS Act. This measure, passed largely against the will of House Democrats and President Obama, would consolidate scattered funding pools into a single “Workforce Investment Fund” from which block grants would be issued directly to states to be dispersed and managed in accordance with their plans. A Democratic alternative was also proposed, prioritizing funding for community colleges, training for high-growth industries, and programs targeted at low-income people. Both plans promise to reduce administrative overhead, build in more rigorous evaluation, and bridge the gap between the unemployed and the 3.6 million unfilled job openings in the United States.
A better educated and skilled workforce is always a good idea, not just for broad-based economic growth, but because a better trained worker is an empowered worker—more capable of finding and keeping a job that pays enough to keep a family out of poverty.
Chapter 4 of the 2013 Hunger Report, With Reach: Global Development Goals, explores the role of the labor market in fighting poverty:
Most of the changes needed to reduce the poverty that now exists in the United States, as opposed to preventing poverty for the next generation, must take place in the labor market. Clearly, there’s a lot of scope for government to make mistakes while trying to correct problems in the labor market, and in the end, government power in this sphere is limited. However, there are also improvements that could be made now. These include raising the minimum wage, indexing the minimum wage to inflation, and ensuring labor rights such as the right to organize and join a union. (Congress and the president have already taken some encouraging actions toward making the minimum wage a living wage.)
Government has failed workers—both low-wage workers and those who were once relatively insulated from eroding purchasing power. The GDP of the country continues to rise, yet real wages are now stagnant even for people with bachelor’s degrees. The most severe effects of the increasingly skewed labor market fall on low-wage workers. The work low-wage workers do is needed, and always will be: janitors, food-service workers, landscapers, farm workers, and others. And the people who have these jobs will, of course, always need to earn a living.
Thus, one essential response is to ensure that all jobs pay enough to keep employees above the poverty line. Government must do more to counter the downward pressure on wages. Human-capital development must be strengthened so that even if some jobs are dead-end jobs, no one is trapped in them for lack of alternatives.
See the rest of Chapter 4 for more on U.S. workforce development and education.
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