Working for a Living, Learning for the Future

Updating the Workforce Investment Act to Create a Competitive 21st Century Labor Force

A report by Louis Soares stresses the importance of improving a Workforce Investment Act system that allows working learners to obtain a postsecondary credential.

An improved WIA program would enable both the unemployed and employed workers to pursue postsecondary credentials while competing aggressively in the labor market. (AP/Jim R. Bounds)
An improved WIA program would enable both the unemployed and employed workers to pursue postsecondary credentials while competing aggressively in the labor market. (AP/Jim R. Bounds)

Download the full report (pdf)

Balancing work, education and life in the 21st century U.S. economy is enormously complicated for most American workers. Even before the two-year long Great Recession, many Americans were already struggling to provide for their families amid a jobless recovery while also trying to learn new skills in order to enter better paying professions. Policymakers in Washington need to help unemployed autoworkers in Michigan and construction workers in Florida get retrained for green jobs, single mothers working in hotel housekeeping get their associate’s degrees in nursing, and real estate agents return to college to pursue an entirely new profession.

These and millions of other workers in other professions must balance family, work and education responsibilities in their quest to achieve the American Dream through improved knowledge and skills. And these “working learners” are a key to our national economic competitiveness. They comprise the nearly 75 million Americans, or 60 percent of our workforce—in the labor market but lacking any kind of postsecondary education credentials from a university or community college. These working learners also include a range of individuals who never completed high school or who have low literacy and English language skills. They are the workers our nation will need to compete more effectively in the global economy and yet they are woefully ill-equipped to do so.

Postsecondary education is demonstrated to increase national innovation, economic productivity and individual incomes and prosperity, yet we are failing to educate this large portion of our workforce.1 The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that more than 71 percent of employment opportunities through 2016 will require postsecondary credentials. Of those working learners who actually begin their college education only about 34 percent have an associates degree or college degree after six years of study. And our nation’s workforce investment system, which is largely designed to help workers who are suddenly unemployed find new jobs quickly, offers workers few chances at earning postsecondary credentials such as associate’s degrees, technology certificates or occupation licenses.

When well-prepared with the right skills and credentials, however, working learners can muster the exact mix of technical knowledge, business acumen and creativity necessary to compete in today’s highly mobile, innovation-driven economy. Science and technology are creating innovation-enabled 21st century job opportunities for working Americans in frontline jobs such as biomedical and energy-efficiency technicians, social media communications assistants, new materials production workers and advanced manufacturing factory floor laborers. But these are the kinds of jobs that require learning new skills on the job and outside of the workplace. The capability of these working learners to compete at all levels of the U.S. economy is in turn important for economic recovery and essential to sustained economic growth.

Unlike the once traditional college student—18-to-24 years old, dependent on parents, attending college for four years and then entering the workforce—working learners must obtain their postsecondary credential while balancing life and work responsibilities over time rather than in a traditional two- or four-year postsecondary education programs.

Working learners pursue knowledge and skills related to employment goals, which include a range of sub-baccalaureate programs and credentials. To be successful simultaneously at work and at school, working learners require flexible education programs, courses of study that yield recognized educational credentials, career guidance, and easy-to-use financial assistance. Such ideal educational programs for working learners are at best rare, but Congress has before it this year an opportunity to help working learners and rebuild U.S. economic competitiveness and prosperity.

Congress needs to focus on the unique needs of working learners as it considers the reauthorization of the landmark Workforce Investment Act of 1998. WIA was originally designed to unify a fragmented set of federal employment and training programs and create a single, universal workforce development system that could provide services for unemployed job seekers and employers. With an annual budget of about $3 billion for training, WIA was never intended to educate millions of working learners, yet the program occupies a unique place in federal public policy. It is the only program that explicitly attempts to build a bridge between education and the economy for all American workers. This bridge is critical in a labor market defined by an increasing demand for workers with postsecondary education and job churn that puts people in new jobs requiring new skills with new companies more often than ever before.

The challenge before Congress is daunting, however, because meeting the needs of working learners is a task that no single labor training or educational institution can possibly meet by itself. Rather, these needs require partnerships between government agencies, colleges and other education providers, non-profit organizations, employers and unions. These partnerships build pathways to education and life success that expand our traditional conceptions of two- and four-year college experiences. The original WIA legislation did envision the need for many partners in education, especially for low-income, low-skill workers, but in practice the decentralized system of local workforce investment boards that runs the current WIA system tends to focus on quick job placement, short-term training with poor quality measures of success, and very little in the way of postsecondary credentials earned.

An improved WIA program would provide a reliable, consistent platform from which working learners could access and persist on these education-career pathways to obtain a postsecondary credential. Such a workforce system would focus more on attaining a postsecondary credential than on quick job placement, more on career development than crisis intervention, and more on quality education programs than quick-fix training. While the current economic crisis is appropriately focusing public policy attention on the needs of millions of unemployed workers, policymakers in Congress must also be sure to build a workforce development system that recognizes education and skills improvement cannot only happen at points of crisis in order to sustain workers’ long-term economic opportunity and our national economic competitiveness.

In short, we need a more balanced WIA system that is able to work with both the unemployed and employed workers who lack postsecondary credentials, workers who are trying to balance work, learning and family responsibilities while competing aggressively in the labor market. For this to happen, Congress needs to help working learners navigate their way toward their simultaneous needs for jobs and better educational opportunities, which is no easy task. In order to succeed, working learners require support finding and keeping jobs while enrolled in education programs that will allow them to meet their other day-to- day responsibilities and future ambitions. Specifically, working learners need federal programs that support:

  • Flexibility—education programs that adapt to work and life responsibilities and incremental career and educational advancement.
  • Credentials—courses of study that lead to credentials valued by employers.
  • Career Guidance—professional assistance to define career paths and select available providers.
  • Resources—financial assistance that is easy-to-use and understand.

The challenge for Congress when it reauthorizes WIA later this year is that, at its best, the program was never intended to take on the challenge of providing postsecondary credentials at a national scale, while at its worst it is an underfunded and overly complex set of programs that place too many unemployed workers in quick fix low-paying jobs, do not invest enough in training and are not measuring whether funded training yielded useful credentials valued by employers. The current decentralized system of 650 local workforce investment boards providing job placement and training services through a network of 1,600 One Stop Centers and a diverse set of educational providers must be transformed to meet the challenge of helping working learners obtain postsecondary credentials.

Fortunately, this report finds that there are a few key legislative changes that can help WIA become a system focused more on career development and postsecondary attainment for working learners. To this end, CAP Action recommends that Congress:

  • Change WIA performance measures to focus on postsecondary attainment, not employment, to increase the number of working learners that obtain credentials valued in the labor market.
  • Create a Community College Innovation Center to research alternate education pathways for working learners that include occupational career pathways, compressed associate degree programs and apprenticeships.
  • Simplify the Individual Training Account and WIA Title I and II funding streams and allow for contract training to pay for education programs to better serve working learners. Build the capacity of the Employment Service, funded through WIA Title III—the Wagner Peyser Act labor exchange program—to deliver relationship-based career guidance.
  • Eliminate WIA eligibility categories for adults and dislocated workers to better use limited resources to serve the needs of all working learners, including those who are low skilled, but employed.
  • Create board membership standards to ensure that business leaders have talent development expertise so they can set standards and enforce educational program quality.
  • Eliminate the WIA system’s so called sequence of services, which creates incentives for workforce development boards to pursue quick job placement for unemployed workers rather than further training to improve their job skills before job placement.

These recommendations are meant to help to improve labor market opportunities for working learners by building a sustainable a postsecondary education system that combines the labor market focus of the workforce development system with the pedagogical rigor and college credits of the higher education system.

In the following pages, this report first details today’s labor market conditions for working learners to better grasp the postsecondary skills demands of workers and employers. These conditions show that we need a workforce development system that is sensitive to the near-term skills demand of the labor market but connected to the educational rigor of higher education.

The report then describes working learners as a substantial new student group, showing that their similarities should guide policy more than their differences, and then examines the current WIA system and its challenges in meeting the needs of working learners. We then elaborate on the key role of community colleges should play in helping educate earners. With this analysis in hand, we then close the report with as a final set of recommendations for changes to the WIA legislation to make its systems target postsecondary credential attainment for working learners as its broadest goal.

Rebuilding the American Dream for millions of workers is dependent on helping them to complete postsecondary education after they are in the labor market, whether they are employed or unemployed. This requires a workforce development system that is flexible enough to allow working learners to obtain credentials with labor market value at their own pace given work and life responsibilities. This will require legislative changes to the Workforce Investment Act that make training funds easier to use, transform community colleges into key players in education delivery and improve overall system quality and performance.

Download the full report (pdf)

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Louis Soares