Excerpt from The A+ Solution
Have you ever looked for your keys and called the locksmith, only to discover your keys were in your unlocked car? Look closely at the delivery models of current workforce training programs and you will find we are in a similar scenario. Over 12.3 million Americans are out of work. Another 885,000 are so frustrated that they have stopped looking. And yet U.S. employers have over three million jobs they can’t fill because they can’t find workers with the skills they need.

For thousands of unemployed and underemployed workers, the path back to work involves waiting on approval for training funding and applying for jobs that require skills they don’t have.

Under current practices, we’re trying to solve the national problem of unemployment at the local level – and it’s not working. Since 1998, funding for workforce development programs has been allocated through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) to states. By design, WIA serves populations including dislocated workers and is intended to be “customer-focused, to help Americans access the tools they need to manage their careers through information and high quality services, and to help U.S. companies find skilled workers.“

In practice, many unemployed and dislocated workers cannot take advantage of WIA funded programs due to cumbersome approval processes and limited availability of funds and eligible programs. Research conducted by the California Senate is representative of the problem: “In some Local Workforce Investment Areas, the boards have reported spending less on training than on administrative costs and other operating expenses not directly related to client services.” For over 10 years, legislators on both sides of the aisle have proposed funding changes and reforms to the WIA. Efforts have consistently failed to pass the House and Senate. We're not taking sides, but at the time of this writing:

  • there have been "federal disinvestments of more than 30 percent in workforce development funding since 2001—with more than $1 billion in cuts just since 2010;" 97 bills related to labor, employment and training programs have been proposed in the current U.S. congressional session;
  • workforce funding will likely be cut for the remainder of the fiscal year due to the sequester and continuing resolution.

As the Department of Labor (DOL) celebrates 100 years of operation, many programs remain stagnant. Take for example, the Registered Apprentice program. On the surface, the “learn while you earn” program looks promising. There are 21,000 apprenticeship programs nationwide — 1,700 of which were established in 2012. Currently, over 285,000 people are active apprentices, but only 53,081 completed the program in 2012. By our math — that’s an average completion rate of less than three per program.

On the state level, $9.5 billion in WIA training funding was disbursed in 2012 to Eligible Training Providers certified by local Workforce Investment Boards (LWIBs). Under WIA, sponsors of apprenticeship programs and post-secondary educational institutions that grant degrees or certificates are authorized to serve as Eligible Training Providers. In addition to community colleges, the current pool of Eligible Training Providers includes for-profit institutions and training schools offering services including bartending, dog grooming, and cosmetology.

As displaced workers search for appropriate training programs, another large-scale experiment is taking place in education. Scores of private and public universities, including MIT, Stanford, and the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor are offering free Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) – and often enrolling tens of thousands of students per course. On average, between 10 and 25 percent of enrolled students complete courses, no course credit is given, and exams are not monitored to ensure academic honesty.

While many MOOCs offer certificates of completion, and some Eligible Training Provider programs offer the opportunity to earn industry-based certifications, notably absent from the equation are nonprofit professional societies and trade associations. This is a clear oversight, given that these organizations focus on developing and sharing expertise in a specific field or industry – and often create the licensure and certification programs that are the industry standard for their respective fields.

Imagine you are an employer or a job seeker and that you could go to one central place for the specialized support you need, an environment that also provides access to ongoing training and continuing education for the future — as well as a gathering spot to make direct connections with peers, mentors, and potential employers in your field. What if you could bring this resource to your community without spending big bucks on curriculum development? Professional societies and trade associations offer this peace of mind and we see a clear path to providing this stability right now.

Our book, The A+ Solution, presents a simple solution to increase our collective prosperity by turning to the very organizations that have long set the standards for individuals in a vast array of professions. Across the U.S., over 70,000 nonprofit professional societies and trade associations focus on gathering and disseminating research and education for their field. While each organization provides expertise in a specific career field or occupation, a central mission of advancing education drives them all. If they fail to meet their mission, they are penalized with higher taxes.

What would happen if we could give millions of Americans access to training, education, and career support resources developed and run by these associations? What if we used these programs as vehicles to get people back to work? Imagine filling current skills gaps across occupations, job titles, and industry sectors simply by leveraging the power of trusted organizations that have been on top of their fields for years. Imagine if we could decrease anxiety among both employers and employees through providing training program participants with access to networking and resources. This would ensure continuing education and knowledge retention long after a course is completed. We could start making these changes right now by inviting professional societies and trade associations to play a greater role in workforce training programs and regional economic development initiatives.

There’s already bipartisan agreement that change needs to happen — but no universal agreement on what needs to be done. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have presented strategies to improve WIA and other workforce training programs and delivery.

  • the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the SKILLS bill designed to streamline overlapping programs and, says bill sponsor Virginia Foxx (R-NC) “strengthen the role of job creators, state leaders, and local officials to better align services with in-demand jobs.” The bill has since been passed to the Senate for review;
  • Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) has proposed S. 453, a bill to require that “certain Federal job training and career education programs give priority to programs that lead to an industry-recognized and nationally portable credentials;”
  • Committees in the House and Senate are reviewing the SECTORS Act, a bill that calls for a new grant program for industry and sector partnerships “to promote industry growth and competitiveness and to improve worker training, retention, and advancement…”

As these bills and others continue through the legislative process, it’s time to step back and add professional societies and trade associations to the mix. How can we overlook a pre-existing national resource already utilized by 1 in 3 Americans — one that offers collective expertise in virtually every industry and skill needed by U.S. workers? As almost all jobs require workers to be educated in changing technology and advances in their field, why not expand workforce development initiatives to include on-going professional development? The expertise of professional societies and trade associations is on standby. The keys are in the ignition. Let’s get started.