21st Century SKILLS Act: A Significant Workforce Investment

By Judy Mortrude and Rosa García

An educated workforce is foundational to a robust economy. But America lacks a policy to help millions of people get the education and training they need to succeed in today’s workplace.

Recently we asked a group of seasoned colleagues to name what old technology or tools they miss the most in their work life. Pagers, intercoms, typewriters, White Out, and mimeograph machines were high on the list. As technology transforms the way we do our work, all of our skills need to change. How do we keep up? We sign up for trainings, collaborate at work, take a class, or – more often than not – we Google it.

Today, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) took a step forward in modernizing the workforce system to our changing world by introducing the 21st Century SKILLS Act. This legislation amends the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) by transforming the little-used Individual Training Accounts into “Upskill Accounts” of up to $8,000 for eligible recipients to fund high-quality, high-value training pegged to regional need AND cover critical supports like child care and transportation. Upskill Accounts are truly transformational because they’re not periodic grants that states would have to compete for. Rather, they would be sustained investments to fully fill the infrastructure created by state and local workforce boards to serve America’s workers.

Our public workforce system should play a key role in continual skill development of the workforce, but for a long time it served largely as a labor exchange. WIOA modernized the metrics from a triage count (get a job, keep that job) to a wellness model (looking back 6 months and a year after exit to determine: Is the person you served employed? How much do they earn?). However, the underfunded WIOA has invested too little in training low-income, unemployed, or underemployed people. And it has provided little incentive for spending its limited dollars on training those most in need. In fact, just 14 percent of WIOA title I adult funds supported training, according to the PY 2016 WIOA National Summary.

With passage of this bill, local workforce boards would finally be able to effectively fulfill their roles as “catalysts to promote careers with good pay…fostering inclusive economic growth” not only by providing the Upskill Account funding, but also by providing career services and employer coordination efforts, along with improving the quality of programs.

Additionally, the 21st Century SKILLS Act includes a competitive grant program to support sector partnerships, with priority given to local partnerships targeting low-income workers. These partnerships would also establish career pathway navigators. Clearly, this bill is a comprehensive policy package – a culmination of best practices in career pathway education, training, and supports with attention to quality employment – to help America keep pace with change. CLASP is grateful to Senator Harris for identifying this need and introducing legislation to help fill the gap in our workforce system. We urge Congress to consider and pass the 21st Century SKILLS Act.