Workforce Investment Boards: Challenging Times Ahead

I’ve spent the last few days at the annual conference of the National Association of Workforce Boards, the trade association of the nearly 600 workforce investment boards (WIBs) located across the US.   The annual forum is always an excellent opportunity to catch up on what’s happening in the world of workforce development.  And, if I had to describe one take-away from this year’s event, it’s that WIBs are facing tough times ahead. 

WIBs are always challenged to do their jobs even in the best of times.  Their programs, which provide training and other services to job seekers and other supports to business customers, face high demand with limited resources to meet all local needs.  But, the situation is likely to get even more challenging in the coming year.  Here are three primary forces facing the workforce development system today:

1) Responding to the “New Normal:”  WIBs are especially challenged by what many economy observers are callling the “new normal”—an economy where new job creation is very slow and recovery is protracted.   These conditions place great pressure on WIBs.  They have huge demands from unemployed workers for training and other support services.  Yet, they have fewer opportunities to place workers in gainful employment.  At the same time, business customers have fewer demands for new workers, and may be less willing to turn to WIBs for help.    WIBs can continue to provide training services, but the perennial issue of “training for what” may arise.  It makes little sense for an unemployed worker to pursue specialized training in fields like nursing or welding if there are few job options available.  So, WIBs are caught in a bind of massive demand for services, but fewer opportunities to push customers into new careers.

2) Budget cuts:  Like all domestic government programs, the workforce development system will likely face big budget cuts in the coming year.  These cuts will exacerbate an already-swamped system.  There are physical limits to “doing more with less.”  The workforce system is already swamped with ranks of newly and long-term unemployed.  Cutting budgets will not improve that equation.

3) A New System Design? Finally, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) is up for reauthorization this year.   WIA, which contains the rules for managing the workforce system, was first enacted in 1998 and has not been reauthorized or updated since that time.  Senate leaders are hoping to pass a new bill this year.  If they succeed, WIBs will face a host of new rules and regulations for how they do business.  For the most part, this is a good thing as the current WIA rules generate a lot of burdensome oversight and complicate the process of developing new partnerships.  But, new rules will also add to the complexities facing WIBs and their leaders as they try to operate effectively in the “new normal.”  

So, if you’re in the workforce system today, you may feel as if you are the subject of the proverbial Chinese curse:  “May you live in interesting times.”   For better or worse, this year will be an “interesting time” for the US workforce development system.

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