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Five Questions for Demetra Smith Nightingale on Workforce Development Policy
Demetra Smith Nightingale

June, 2011

Senior Fellow Demetra Smith Nightingale answers five questions about workforce development policy—how it’s evolved, when it’s most effective, and what policymakers can do to improve job training and education. The Obama administration has emphasized community colleges’ key role in workforce development and the need to forge partnerships between community colleges and employers to better train future workers.

1. What is workforce development and how has it evolved?

Workforce development is a term used to describe employment and training activities. Over the years, the term has changed. In the ’60s and ’70s, it was called manpower development, then—to be more politically acceptable—people started calling it job training. In the ’80s, we started using the terms workforce investment and workforce development. The names may change, but we’re still talking about the same idea.

Workforce development generally refers to job training and skills development, as well as employment services or labor exchange, which means connecting workers with businesses that are hiring. There are two customers for workforce development—the employer and workers. Also, workforce development applies to all levels and types of businesses and workers, not just to low-income adults or those in low-skilled jobs.

The business community spends around 10 times more on workforce development than the government spends. The largest source of federal funding (over $3 billion a year) is through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) under the U.S. Department of Labor, but there are hundreds of other funding streams and programs in nearly a dozen federal agencies. The Department of Education funds training through Pell grants and college loans and the Department of Health and Human Services funds training and employment programs for low-income families. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the departments of Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce—almost every agency has some kind of workforce training.

2. How has community colleges’ role changed? And how are community colleges strengthening the connection between classroom and career?

The role of community colleges has expanded over the past 15 to 20 years. Traditionally, their primary mission was to prepare students to transition into four-year colleges, but they now also do more to prepare students for jobs and help them in the labor market. You’ll see at least four types of changes happening at community colleges.

First, career pathways laying out the requirements that workers need for specific jobs is pretty common. Second is the concept of lifelong learning. It’s no longer true that people go from high school to college to work. People may go to work and then go back to school. Community colleges have an important role to play in that cycle of lifelong learning and retraining. Third, businesses now often contract with community colleges to offer customized training for their workers.


3. Does workforce development work? And does it effectively combat high unemployment?

Research has shown that workforce development works, but how we go about it matters. We know that training is more effective if it’s intensive, long-term, and workplace-based, such as on-the-job training, apprenticeships, or internships. Giving individuals real work experience while in training develops skills better than stand-alone training does. And this applies to all skill levels—whether someone is studying for a two-year degree or a PhD—if they don’t understand how their education and skills relate to a job, their workplace success will be limited.

Some groups, though, face more challenges in school and in work. As a nation, we’re struggling with how to improve job opportunities for disadvantaged youth, particularly high school dropouts. Also hard to serve are people with multiple barriers to employment—low-income parents, particularly single mothers; people with limited education and low literacy; those without child care and transportation; those with medical or mental health problems that might interfere with training or work; and those with criminal records. But we do have examples of promising approaches to help the most hard-to-employ population groups. The key here is providing personal supportive services along with real work experience, education, and training.

4. What can policymakers do to improve and advance workforce development—keeping in mind the budget constraints of federal and state governments?

I think we have to be creative in how we use the resources at hand. Current public resources for training are very limited. One Urban Institute study found that federal funding for job training covers less than 5 percent of the population that wants training or could benefit from it. We need more public and private resources for training across the board. Most employer investment in training is for middle-income workers and higher. We need to think hard about what kinds of incentives would leverage private businesses to invest in lower-skilled workers.

We also need more support for community college students, particularly low-income workers who go to school while also holding a job. It’s very difficult for a single mother to juggle work and classes. Well, let’s think of ways to make that easier. We also need more public/private approaches that give future workers the skills employers need. Training grounded in workplace realities helps do that.

The best time to invest in training and the best time to get political support for investment in training is when unemployment rates are high. People who are out of work can use that time to improve their job skills.

5. What role has the Urban Institute played in workforce development policy?

We’ve evaluated a lot of workforce development policies and programs, such as those funded by the Workforce Investment Act, One-Stop Career Centers, apprenticeship programs, Welfare to Work, youth employment programs, and older worker programs. We’re also evaluating the Young Parents Demonstration Program, which funds over a dozen programs supporting and mentoring young parents with a focus on education, training, and employment.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen more federal funding come through special grants initiatives rather than through WIA, and we’re evaluating those programs too. These targeted programs are more sector-based—like programs focused on health care, advanced manufacturing, green jobs, and the automotive industry—so they are linked more to specific industries and businesses. We’re evaluating the Labor Department’s Community Based Job Training Initiative and the High Growth Job Training Initiative—both of which awarded several hundreds of grants to community colleges and other training institutions to develop innovative programs. And we’re evaluating the new Health Profession Opportunity Grants training programs that are trying to increase the number of health care workers.

With all this evaluation evidence accumulating, we’ll have a lot of useful new information over the next few years about best practices in the field.

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