For the last several years, politicians and other stakeholders in workforce development have been weighing in on the best way to improve the system in order to produce a more highly skilled workforce and grow our economy. The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 has been up for reauthorization since 2003 and, most would agree, the change in the U.S. economy since 1998 warrants changes to the system. House Republicans and Democrats have offered up competing bills on the best way to make improvements to the WIA. The Republican version, H.R. 4297, consolidates over two dozen existing job training programs into a single fund, which would be allocated to states. On June 8, H.R. 4297 was passed in a straight party-line vote by the Education and the Workforce Committee. The bill is set to be moved to a full House vote, although it is uncertain when this will take place.
Any changes to our workforce development system should address the skills gap problem, which evidence shows is preventing U.S. employers from hiring workers. The National Skills Coalition notes this gap hurts job creation and economic growth, which continues to negatively impact the US economy. It also prevents job seekers from obtaining higher paying jobs in fields such as manufacturing because they are not qualified for the positions. Renewed efforts in training and education of the American workforce are seen as answers to closing the skills gap.
Education and training is a main component of the newly released proposal by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a nonpartisan research and educational institute, which details a plan to overhaul the workforce development system. The proposal, “Let’s Get Serious About Our Nation’s Human Capital,” is interesting because of its focus on how workers’ level of human capital directly affects their employment status. This is a much more broad and holistic way to look at the issue, rather than just focusing on workers’ skills or educational levels. The authors, Stephen Steigleder and Louis Soares, recognize that in today’s economy finding a new or better paying job is not as simple as it once was. A combination of increased skills (including hard, soft, and interpersonal), experience, higher levels of education, and the ability to network are key to upward mobility. Consequently, CAP’s main argument for the lack of mobility in low-skilled and low-waged workers is their deficiency in these attributes, or what they call a low level of human capital. The proposal details ways to raise human capital in workers, primarily through increased education, training, and career counseling.
The CAP proposal briefly addresses migrant and seasonal farmworkers as a targeted community. The authors deem the National Farmworker Jobs Program(NFJP), which is the job training program specifically aimed at the addressing the workforce needs of this population, should remain as a national program. They noted it would better serve their unique needs, rather than be lumped into the broader workforce system. This is important because, I would venture to say, farmworkers have some of the lowest human capital in our workforce. Additionally, the average annual earnings of a farmworker are around just $10,000 (USDOL), making it very difficult to even put food on their tables. Many lack formal education, with an average education level of just 7th grade (NAWS); have language barriers; narrow skill sets; and are more isolated from opportunities in other industries due their work history, physical locations, endemic poverty, and migratory patterns.
The goals of the NFJP are to assist farmworkers in finding higher-paying, stable employment which they can retain. But in a broader sense, these NFJP providers are also helping them increase their human capital, which will take them well beyond that first job. A key piece of this for farmworkers is to further their education and skills by obtaining degrees, certificates, or credentials in fields that have been identified as in-demand, according to their local labor market information.
In an ever-competitive job market, it is imperative we help give the underserved and most vulnerable jobseekers our best. This targeted program, with its farmworker-specific services, provides NFJP participants with the know-how to navigate hiring processes with confidence. For those who work with farmworkers, it is more difficult than simply helping customers decide what they want to do; they have barriers to success most traditional jobseekers do not. These professionals who serve our nation’s farmworkers have to think creatively about how they can assist participants in raising their human capital.
We must always ask: “What more can we do to give them the power and knowledge to continually better their lives long after exiting the program?”