National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 House passes workforce SKILLS bill

By Deseree Gardner

The House has passed legislation — the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act (H.R. 803) — that reauthorizes the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA).

The SKILLS Act would consolidate more than 35 existing federal employment and training programs into a single Workforce Investment Fund. In addition, the bill would eliminate provisions relating to automatic designation of local workforce areas, allowing state boards to designate local areas in consultation with the governor.

NACo, along with the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM), the National League of Cities (NLC) and the National Association of Workforce Boards (NAWB) sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, expressing significant concerns with certain provisions in H.R. 803 surrounding local area designation, youth funding mechanisms and program consolidation, which undermine existing governance structures and dilute the important role of local stakeholders in the administration of workforce development activities as envisioned in the 1998 law.

The groups called on Congress to enact a bipartisan workforce development bill this year.

Enacted in 1998, WIA established a framework for the nation’s workforce development system, serving as the largest single source of federal funding for workforce development activities. The law replaced multiple existing training programs with state formula grants and created a nationwide network of locally administered “one stop” centers where both workers and employers could access training, employment and support programs administered through the U.S. Department of Labor and other agencies.

The law authorizing WIA expired in 2003 and is currently unauthorized yet operating through the annual appropriations process.

WIA envisioned a strong role for local stakeholders in the administration of workforce development activities. The leadership role of elected officials was essential to maximizing WIA’s impact in state and local jurisdictions through collaboration with state and local Workforce Investment Boards (WIB), and policy setting for the workforce system to achieve broader human capital and economic development goals.

Under WIA, the chief elected official (CEO) is designated in local operating agreements covering local workforce investment areas and plays a key role since most funding flows to the local level to be invested in alignment with a local plan. Like the governor, the CEO is liable for these funds, which can be administered either by local government or by a fiscal agent designated by the CEO. The CEO also appoints the local WIB chair, who is accountable to the CEO for planning and oversight of the public workforce services in the area.

Given this more than a decade-old structure, it is critical that any workforce development bill maintains a system that promotes intergovernmental collaboration between state and local elected officials in order to adequately determine services and programs that effectively respond to local emerging economic realities and business needs.

NACo strongly supports enactment of a bipartisan workforce development bill that is responsive to emerging economic realities and business needs. The reauthorization of WIA presents a critical opportunity to enact needed improvements to the nation’s workforce system that encourage collaborative partnerships at the local level to leverage the existing infrastructure, expertise and resources of current WIA service providers and stakeholders, without siphoning off critical resources to build and implement a new workforce system.

Any further action on WIA reauthorization now moves to the Senate. However, due to significant membership changes on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, it is currently unclear how the Senate will proceed on WIA reauthorization.  Although it is not expected that the Senate will take up the House-passed bill, the bill will likely serve as an important starting point for any future congressional WIA reauthorization negotiations.

The SKILLS ACT was introduced by Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Joe Heck (R-Nev.) and passed the House, as amended, March 15 largely along party lines.