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Providing disadvantaged workers with skills to succeed in the labor market

June 16, 2014

This proposal is chapter nine of The Hamilton Project’s Policies to Address Poverty in America, and a segment in Building Skills.

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Millions of Americans cannot obtain jobs that pay enough to lift them out of poverty. For many, the principal barrier to obtaining these good jobs is their lack of specialized occupational skills increasingly sought by employers. Research has shown that vocational training can be effective in boosting the earnings of disadvantaged adult workers. This proposal argues that, by helping workers acquire the skills that employers demand, vocational training could be wielded as an effective antipoverty tool.

The 1998 Workforce Investment Act (WIA) Adult program is one of the most important sources of government-funded vocational training for disadvantaged workers—workers with both low levels of education and low levels of skills. Accessed through the American Job Center network, this program provides vocational training funds for adults aged eighteen or older who are determined to need, and be suitable for, vocational training, with priority of service given to low income workers. Eligible workers are provided a voucher, known as an individual training account, that they can use to purchase training at any program as long as it is on a state-approved list of programs that includes courses at both community colleges and private training providers. The WIA Adult program, currently funded at about $800 million, serves more than one million workers annually. Funding for the WIA Adult program and other sources of vocational training has been declining over the past several decades. WIA was scheduled for congressional reauthorization in 2003, but more than ten years have passed without new legislation. In May 2014, policymakers announced that they reached a bipartisan deal to reauthorize WIA through new legislation, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

This paper outlines why Congress should increase funding for vocational training for disadvantaged adult workers. Specifically, we argue that Congress should increase funding for the WIA Adult program. Decades of research on the effectiveness of vocational training of the type provided by the WIA Adult program, as well as an evaluation of the WIA Adult program itself, suggest that the program can be effective in increasing the employment and earnings of disadvantaged workers.

We also argue, however, that Congress, and the state and local workforce investment boards that administer the WIA Adult program, should explore ways to improve the vocational training that is available to adult disadvantaged workers. In particular, policymakers should focus on addressing two concerns about training programs: (1) too many people who start training programs do not complete them, and (2) too many people do not find a job in the occupation for which they are trained. We recommend experimentation with four evidence-based approaches to address these concerns: (1) providing more guidance to workers so they make appropriate decisions about training, (2) investing in more services to support the workers while they are enrolled in a training program, (3) developing training programs that provide the skills demanded by employers, and (4) developing training programs that are more suited to the needs of disadvantaged adult trainees. In the absence of federal action on reauthorization to fund this experimentation, we encourage state and local workforce boards that oversee the American Job Centers to take advantage of grant opportunities to test the proposed strategies aimed at improving outcomes for trainees.


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