This morning, I attended an interesting Brookings Institution discussion on the future of US workforce development policy. The panel included some of the US’s leading experts and covered a wide range of topics. Lots of discussion centered on the issue of whether a workforce skills gap really exists. Wharton’s Peter Capelli reiterated his well-publicized contention that there is little evidence for the skills gap. In his view, employers can find needed workers. However, they are unwilling to provide necessary pay or training to attract them. He went on further to convincingly note that continued focus on the skills gap sends a dangerous message to unemployed workers. They are told to pick up new (often costly) skills and credentials with little evidence that these new credentials or degrees will produce new jobs.
I was hoping for some insights on whether Congress intended to take a deep look at workforce policy, especially the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), this year. Unfortunately, the environment looks little changed and none of the panelists offered any hope (to me, at least) that new directions in workforce policy will be forthcoming this year. Louis Jacobson discussed his research that shows that WIA programs work quite well and meet any stringent cost-benefit analysis. Yet, for some reason, Congressional leaders continue to believe that workforce programs are rife with waste, fraud, and abuse. As a result, they are focused on program consolidation as opposed to assessing how best to help workers find new jobs.
I came away from today’s discussion with optimism that top experts are taking a hard look at how to effectively train Americans for new careers. Meanwhile, I can’t avoid remaining poessimistic that this message will never make it up to the decisionmakers on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.