Creating a competitive, sustainable global workforce

This month, in a rare and encouraging show of bipartisanship, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved an overhaul of federal job training programs with passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

Now headed to the president’s desk, WIOA is a significant step toward addressing a critical national challenge: While 9.5 million Americans remain unemployed as the economy recovers, 4.6 million jobs in the U.S. continue to go unfilled. This seven-year high in job openings means there is roughly one opening for every two Americans looking for work due to a chronic mismatch of skills and job availability. An effective, modern workforce training system will help to fill these jobs with qualified workers and significantly lower the unemployment rate.

As a member of the New Democrat Coalition, I strongly supported passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. WIOA shifts control and budgetary flexibility of federal training programs to local decision makers, allowing One-Stop employment centers and regional Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) to work directly with local employers, educators, and skills trainers to prepare workers to fill job openings in their communities. WIBs will regularly conduct regional workforce assessments and labor market analysis to ensure a clear and current picture of local employment trends, allowing training to be better tailored to existing and emerging job opportunities and smarter decisions to be made about allocating limited resources.

New minimum standards for private sector participation on WIBs and a greater emphasis on local public-private partnerships will help employers find qualified candidates, making these companies more likely to sustain long-term growth. In turn, job seekers will receive the training necessary to succeed in well-paid, high-demand jobs. Workforce program managers will have the flexibility to tailor services to their community’s specific needs and accountability standards will tie program performance to funding, ensuring taxpayers finance only successful, cost-effective programs.

In the coming months, New Democrats will be working on ways to build upon the foundation laid by this bipartisan accomplishment through the formation of a working group on workforce development. The working group will continue to meet with leaders and stakeholders in business, education and training, labor, and workforce development to explore innovative ways to put Americans back to work. We will consider solutions including public-private partnerships to develop strategies to give workers the most in-demand skills, expanded on-the-job training programs that have a proven record of success, and a renewed commitment to the apprenticeship model.

For Americans to succeed in the global economy, our job training system must adapt to changing circumstances by using technology and data to understand underlying trends in the job market. Ultimately, workforce training services should be able to anticipate and fill the needs of the private sector in real time. It is my hope members of Congress from across the political spectrum will continue to show bipartisanship on this critically important issue by working with the New Democrats on innovative ways to ensure the American workforce is globally competitive into the future.

Rep. Bill Owens is a Democrat who lives in Plattsburgh. He represents New York’s 21st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.