A second chance for second chances Featured

10:01am EDT July 22, 2002

You may not have noticed in all the impeachment ruckus, but the 105th Congress actually did get something accomplished this year.

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 "is the biggest makeover or reform of job training programs probably in our history," according to Jay Diskey, spokesman for the House Education and Workforce Committee in Washington, D.C.

The act, signed into law by President Clinton last August, consolidates and streamlines more than 60 federal job training programs dating as far back as the 1940s. It authorizes nearly $6 billion a year in federal block grants to the states, mandates a system of new local one-stop service centers, sets up Individual Training Account vouchers for financial assistance and establishes employer-dominated Workforce Investment Boards to monitor training quality and results. At least 1.2 million Americans now enrolled in Job Training Partnership Act and summer youth jobs programs will move into the new system, with millions more displaced workers and former welfare recipients expected to be eligible.

"We hope to build some credibility into the system, which it currently doesn't have," says Cynthia Pantazis, manager for government and policy relations at the American Society for Training & Development in Alexandria, Va. Employers derided JTPA and other federal job training programs as ineffective government bureaucracies, Pantazis notes. Just one in 10 welfare recipients ever consulted the available jobs banks, Diskey adds. Tom Lindsley, vice president for policy and government relations at the National Alliance of Business in Washington, D.C., believes, "If this is done right, and it is an easy-to-use system, and it is market-driven and business-led, it is a system [employers] will use."

Here's how it will work: Most states already have one-stop retraining centers. The new law will clear away the confusing and occasionally contradictory welter of programs accumulated from the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s, in favor of a flexible approach driven by local needs.

The U.S. Department of Labor will issue interim final regulations, probably in February. After that, states have until July 1, 2000, to set up a State Workforce Investment Board and submit a five-year workforce development plan to the Labor Department. Appointed by the governor, with nominations from the business community, the state board must seat a majority of business owners and representatives, with additional seats for educational institutions, economic development agencies, labor and community organizations.

The governor of each state will then designate local workforce investment areas. Boundaries will be drawn considering the geographic service areas of established educational bodies, labor market demographics, transportation and resources needed for effective administration of job training programs. Local governments serving populations of 500,000 or more may request designation as a workforce investment area.

Then, in partnership with local elected officials, local workforce investment boards will be set up to organize, deliver, monitor and evaluate job training services. The local board must also have a business majority. A one-stop delivery system will be established by each local board. Training vouchers will be distributed to qualified workers; generally, youth ages 19 to 21; adults; and "dislocated" workers, meaning those unemployed through no fault of their own. The vouchers may be used for services at accredited educational institutions. Their value will be established by the state in conjunction with the local boards; trainees, employers, or other institutions may make up any shortfall.

Since the funds for the Workforce Investment Act will be distributed as block grants, states will have far greater discretion than before in how they'll be spent. Pantazis acknowledges there was some skepticism about the system: "Whenever you block grant, there is politicking over who gets what." But she's satisfied that multiple layers of federal, state and local oversight, along with the emphasis on employer involvement, will discourage abuse. "I think there is a lot of good intent out there."

The federal Department of Labor has posted a Web site for information on this evolving program, www.usworkforce.org.