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Cascade: No. 78, Fall 2011

A Federal Perspective on Workforce Development Issues

The Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) is the federal agency charged with supporting the efficient functioning of the U.S. labor market by providing job training, employment, labor market information, and income support for workers who have lost their jobs. With an annual budget of about $10 billion, the ETA administers programs that annually serve about 39 million unemployed workers and incumbent employees and respond to the workforce needs of employers.

Today’s economy poses unique challenges. The workforce development field faces a vastly changed national labor market in which millions of employees have been dislocated from their jobs in traditional industries and need new skills to compete for jobs in the labor market. Now more than ever, there is fierce global competition for an educated workforce with industry-recognized credentials and postsecondary education and skills. To address these economic dynamics, the ETA is strengthening partnerships across federal agencies, developing clear career pathways that lead to attainment of industry-recognized credentials, developing better virtual career tools, and investing in “earn and learn” training strategies.

New Federal Partnerships

Particularly in the face of today’s budget constraints, the ETA is committed to finding new ways to work across federal programs to improve outcomes for employees and businesses. The ETA has strong ties with the Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, and other agencies, in convening regional meetings, providing joint guidance, offering shared grant opportunities, and conducting research.

Jobs Accelerator Initiative

Instructor James Scott (left) guides apprentice Doug Bonner in a welding class at Gloucester County College in New Jersey. The U.S. Department of Labor's apprenticeship office registered both the apprentice and the college's apprenticeship program to ensure that they meet standards for technical instruction and other areas.Instructor James Scott (left) guides apprentice Doug Bonner in a welding class at Gloucester County College in New Jersey. The U.S. Department of Labor’s apprenticeship office registered both the apprentice and the college’s apprenticeship program to ensure that they meet standards for technical instruction and other areas.

The Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge initiative coordinates resources from 16 federal agencies to spur economic growth through public–private partnerships in regions around the country. Under the Jobs Accelerator funding competition, which was held from May through July of 2011, regions competed for complementary federal resources for workforce development, economic development, and small business development. The ETA will invest up to $20 million for technical skills training, the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration will invest up to $10 million in economic adjustment assistance funds, and the Small Business Administration will invest up to $3 million in technical assistance. In addition, multiple federal agencies are committed to providing technical assistance to support the 20 regions that will be selected in the competition.

In the past, different federal agencies would typically award funding separately to state or local governments or other entities. These resources may or may not have been awarded to the same geographical area, and if they were, the level of coordination on the ground varied considerably. However, the Jobs Accelerator represents a new approach in which federal agencies award economic development, small business development, and workforce development funds to integrated projects that support industry clusters in defined regional economies.

This interagency collaboration allows applicants to submit one application to access three complementary federal sources to comprehensively support cluster development. The award announcements are expected in September 2011.1

Career Pathways and Credential Attainment

Another interagency collaborative effort focuses on career pathways, which are clear sequences of coursework and employer-valued credentials that help individuals train for positions that are in demand in growing industries.2 Career pathways enable employees, at different points in their work history and educational history, to access training and progressively advance in the workplace.

The ETA’s interest in career pathways reflects its commitment to lifelong learning and skills upgrading and its focus on attaining credentials. In January 2010, in a training and employment guidance letter to grantees and other workforce stakeholders, the ETA announced its goal of increasing the credentialing rate of individuals enrolled in ETA-supported programs.3 In addition, the guidance letter outlined strategies that stakeholders can take to achieve this goal.

The ETA recognizes that career pathway models are developed at the state, local, or regional levels and should involve a range of stakeholders in education, workforce development, human services, economic development, and businesses. The ETA, the Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families have joined forces to promote career pathways. For example, the Administration for Children and Families and the Office of Vocational and Adult Education staffs worked with the ETA staff to develop the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Career Pathways Institute, a technical assistance initiative that brings together stakeholders to participate in a strategic planning process with career pathway content experts. The three agencies are developing joint communications to be shared with the agencies’ stakeholders on the guiding principles and essential elements in developing career pathway programs.

Virtual Career Tools

Another priority for the ETA is improving virtual access to career information. Over the past year, the ETA has enhanced existing virtual tools and launched new online resources that make it easier for youth to explore possible careers, for unemployed workers to get the assistance they need to get back to work, and for incumbent workers to seek out new opportunities. Virtual career tools are one of the key strategies the agency is using to equip workers with the knowledge needed to navigate the labor market and connect them with employers with job openings.

One virtual career tool, www.mySkillsmyFuture.org External Link, enables job seekers and intermediaries to match a worker’s occupational skills and experiences with the skills needed in other occupations. The website is designed for use as either a self-help tool or with the assistance of expert advisers. Another online tool, www.MyNextMove.gov External Link, allows individuals to explore careers. The site includes an online interest assessment; an easy-to-read one-page occupation profile highlighting knowledge, skills, abilities, technologies used, and simplified salary and outlook information; and links for specific training and employment opportunities.

Earn-While-You-Learn Models

Many unemployed Americans, particularly the growing number of long-term unemployed, need to earn wages while they complete training in order to support themselves and their families. Therefore, the ETA is focusing on effective models — such as on-the-job training (OJT), registered apprenticeships, and work experiences for youth — that provide earnings and increase employability, skills, and opportunities for advancement, particularly for disadvantaged populations.

On-the-Job Training

In OJT, workers are hired by employers and earn wages while training at the workplace. Employers are reimbursed for a portion of the cost of training a new employee. OJT requires active participation from employers for training to take place at a worksite and is based on an agreement between the employer and the OJT provider. Participants have a chance to “learn and earn” while working in a job that provides a regular paycheck. OJT works because the training provider takes into consideration the skill set of laid-off and/or unemployed employees and the job needs of local industries. Employers using OJT are in health care, information technology, construction, manufacturing, and many other industries.

OJT is an allowable activity under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in which employers can be reimbursed for up to 50 percent of the cost of training employees at a jobsite. The ETA has also awarded $75 million in OJT national emergency grants that allow employers to be reimbursed for 50 percent to 90 percent of the cost of training employees for up to six months.

Employers may hesitate to add employees in uncertain economic times, and OJT helps assure employers that participants can quickly become a valuable asset. OJT provides employees with job experience and sometimes a permanent job, even if there has been substantial time since the participant’s last job. OJT is a suitable training option for various workers, including low-income and low-skilled individuals, dislocated employees, and individuals experiencing prolonged unemployment.

The U.S. Public Workforce System


The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 established a national public workforce system funded by the federal government and operated by states and local agencies and organizations. The system consists of a network of One-Stop Career Centers that provide information and access to a wide array of job training, education, and employment services. About 2,900 One-Stop Career Centers are operated across the country by community colleges, community-based organizations, for-profit entities, and government agencies.

Services for Job Seekers and Employers

Through One-Stop Career Centers, millions of job seekers each year receive:

  • Up-to-date labor market information that identifies job vacancies, skills necessary for available jobs, and local, regional, and national employment trends;
  • Career counseling and assessments of skill levels, aptitudes, and abilities;
  • Information on employment-related services, including information about education and training programs and referrals to supportive services, help filing claims for unemployment insurance, and help evaluating eligibility for job training and education programs and student financial aid;
  • Access to job postings, job search, and placement assistance; and
  • Training, including skills upgrading, adult education, and occupational skills, on-the-job, entrepreneurial, and job readiness training.

One-Stop Career Centers also provide employers with a single point of contact to supply information about current and future workforce needs, to list job openings, and to hire skilled workers.

One-Stop Partner Programs

The WIA established that programs administered by the four federal departments listed below would be part of the One-Stop system to ensure job seekers’ access to a comprehensive range of services. As a result, information and access to the following federal programs are available at the One-Stop Career Centers:

  • U.S. Department of Labor programs — adult, dislocated worker, and youth programs under WIA; Job Corps; the Wagner-Peyser Employment Service; the Senior Community Service Employment Program; the Trade Adjustment Assistance program; veterans’ employment and training programs; and unemployment insurance
  • U.S. Department of Education programs — adult education and literacy programs under the WIA; Vocational Rehabilitation Act programs; and postsecondary vocational education under the Perkins Act
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services programs — community services block grants
  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — employment and training activities

States may also choose to provide information at the centers on other programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and programs under the National and Community Service Act.

Federal-State-Local Partnerships

The public workforce system is a collaborative effort between the federal government, state governments, and local agencies and organizations. The WIA is administered at the national level by the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA). Most WIA funds are distributed by the ETA through statutory formulas to state governments and by states to local agencies and organizations, where services are delivered to adult and youth job seekers through the One-Stop Career Center system.

Over 600 Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) operate at the state and local levels to develop strategic plans and set funding priorities for the public workforce system. Most of the members of the WIBs must be from the business sector. Members also include representatives of education providers, labor organizations, community-based organizations, economic development agencies, and One-Stop partner programs.

Locating One-Stop Career Centers

To find a One-Stop Career Center, visit www.servicelocator.org External Link or call 1-877-US2-JOBS.

— U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration

OJT currently accounts for roughly 10 percent of all training performed in the WIA Adult and Dislocated Worker programs (there are separate programs for adults and dislocated employees). Reports show that 14,275 participants in the programs received OJT services between July 2009 and June 2010. Based on performance data for that same period, 86 percent of adults who participated in OJT found employment, compared with 67 percent of those who received occupational training. Similarly, 90 percent of the dislocated employees who completed OJT found employment, compared with 74 percent of those who received occupational training. The OJT model is more expensive than the counsel-train-place model that is more common in the public workforce system, but data suggest that OJT leads to more job placements.

The ETA’s OJT national emergency grant initiative led to 2,000 placements with several thousand more placements expected over the course of 2011.

Registered Apprenticeships

Registered apprenticeship programs are another successful “earn and learn” workforce development model that combines on-the-job experience and related academic and technical classroom instruction. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first state apprenticeship law and the 75th anniversary of the passage of the National Apprenticeship Act. Approximately 430,000 apprentices are working in almost 1,000 occupations.

Registered apprenticeship programs enable employers to develop a highly skilled workforce with industry-recognized credentials. Over 225,000 employers nationwide participate in apprenticeship programs registered with DOL or state apprenticeship agencies. While there is a long-established partnership with the building trades and construction industry, registered apprenticeships, strengthened by regulations issued in 2008, are meeting the needs of many different industries, including health care, information technology, advanced manufacturing, and industries using green technologies.

Registered apprenticeships now have the ability to offer training focused on very specific skill competencies within an industry. For example, registered apprenticeship programs can provide employees with interim credentials prior to their attainment of the final apprenticeship completion certificate. For example, in a certified nursing assistant apprenticeship, apprentices can earn interim credentials by demonstrating competencies in such areas as hospice and palliative care, dementia, geriatrics, and disabilities.

Many apprentices also have the opportunity to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in addition to their industry-recognized credential. A growing number of registered apprenticeship programs now work directly with many two- and four-year colleges and universities to provide technical classroom instruction. Additionally, employers are often willing to help pay the cost of tuition, books, and other materials. One lesson learned from the recession is that degrees and industry-recognized credentials that are in demand give greater protection against long-term unemployment compared with not having these credentials.

Registered apprenticeships are extremely competitive and highly sought after. This learning model, with its contextual and hands-on learning, is ideally suited to low-income individuals who have not been successful in a traditional classroom setting.4 Today more than ever, we need a modernized, expanded national apprenticeship system that works in conjunction with workforce and educational partners.

Work Experiences for Young People

During the recession, and to a large extent over the past decade, young people have encountered substantial difficulties in obtaining employment both during the summer months and year round. The employment rate of the nation’s 16– to 19–year-olds fell considerably during and after the mild national economic recession of 2001 and never came close to regaining its pre-recession peak during the job market recovery from 2003–2007. Youth employment then tumbled further during the recession of 2007–2009, reaching new historical lows.5

Jessica Hill Vollmer, a registered apprentice with the Tennessee Carpenters Regional Council Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, demonstrates her carpentry skills.Jessica Hill Vollmer, a registered apprentice with the Tennessee Carpenters Regional Council Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, demonstrates her carpentry skills.

Youth work experiences are structured learning experiences that take place in a for-profit, nonprofit, or public-sector workplace for a limited period of time. Work experiences enable young people to gain exposure to the working world and its requirements. Young people who work during their teens and early twenties are more likely to work in later years.6

Through the WIA Youth Program, states and local agencies and organizations can provide young people with work experiences, including summer employment opportunities directly linked to academic and occupational learning, occupational skills training, and leadership development opportunities.

Some successful work experience programs for young people integrate basic education and remediation with skills training in what is called contextualized learning. Contextualization is a promising approach that makes work a central context for learning and helps students attain work readiness skills.

Some of the more successful youth programs are in high-growth industries, such as health care. Research suggests that young people need to be exposed to companies in a broad range of industries.7 Their lack of broad-based work exposure limits their immediate and long-term job prospects. Seventeen- to 20-year-olds are concentrated in a few occupations and industries, such as food service, stock handlers (primarily in grocery stores), sales clerks and newsboys, and employees in the entertainment and recreation service industry, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.8

The WIA Youth Program provides employment and education services to eligible low-income individuals who are 14 to 21 years of age. Between July 2009 and June 2010, the program served 279,427 young people with an annual appropriation of $924 million and an estimated cost of $3,307 per participant. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 provided an additional $1.2 billion in funds for WIA Youth Program activities with a strong emphasis on summer employment. Over 365,000 young people participated in ARRA-funded work experiences.


The Department of Labor recognizes that these are not the times for one-size-fits-all workforce development approaches. The ETA’s programs are collaborative efforts with states and local agencies and organizations and critical business, education, and nonprofit partners that understand the particular needs of their local economies. The ETA showcases best practices and collaborative models and provides technical assistance to the ETA’s dual clients: businesses and job seekers.

The ETA is always looking to add new partners and improve its understanding of fresh approaches and proven practices. If you have any ideas on how the ETA can improve its services and practices, you are encouraged to contact the national office or one of the ETA regional offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, or San Francisco. The best way to accelerate our recovery and build the best future for America is to work together. Our citizens deserve no less.

For information, contact Jane Oates at oates.jane@dol.gov E-Mail Address or 202-693-2700; http://www.doleta.gov/ External Link.

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