America’s workforce development system is made up of public- and private-sector programs, financial aid, and supportive and other services that provide training and retraining to current workers and the unemployed. It helps workers stay or become employable and helps the unemployed find jobs. It also connects employers with job vacancies to job-seekers and identifies areas of job growth and the skills workers need to get those jobs. Cooperation and collaboration between public and private sectors is essential to foster skills development and employment in good jobs paying adequate compensation while promoting economic growth. Government agencies, large and small businesses, labor, educational institutions, and community-based organizations must work together.
In a rapidly changing global economy, workers must update and refresh their skills often throughout their working lives to remain competitive. As people work longer because they either want to or must—and because employers may need them if labor or skills shortages materialize—it becomes critically important that the workforce development system is better attuned to the needs of employees, employers, and the economy as a whole.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) coordinates federal workforce development programs and activities in several thousand one-stop career centers. In addition to WIOA, public workforce programs focused on older people include:
- the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), which provides part-time public-service employment and job placement assistance for low-income people age 55 and older with funds appropriated under the Older Americans Act; and
- Trade Adjustment Assistance, which helps workers who have lost their jobs as a result of increased imports or movement of jobs offshore. Affected workers may be eligible for a variety of services, including training. Under the Reemployment Trade Adjustment Assistance (RTAA) program, older workers may be eligible for a wage subsidy if they accept a job with lower wages than they had received at previous jobs.
SCSEP and the RTAA program are the only two federal workforce programs that specifically target older workers.
Under WIOA, workforce development centers offer a variety of services to job-seekers, from self-service access to electronic databases; staff support for services such as individual employment plan development, counseling, job referrals, and placement assistance; and access to training services to help workers acquire or upgrade job skills.
The majority of WIOA provisions took effect on July 1, 2015. There were a number of provisions in the new law that could work well for older workers. For example, WIOA:
- Singles out “individuals with a barrier to employment” as segments of the population to which WIOA services should be targeted. Among the groups with barriers are older individuals (age 55 and older), along with several groups in which older workers are disproportionately represented: the long-term unemployed, displaced homemakers, and persons with disabilities. States must develop plans on how they will serve these groups and report how they have been served. Reporting data must be disaggregated by age, which should make it easier to see how older workers fare under WIOA programs.
- Eliminates the sequence of services, which should enable jobseekers to access training and support immediately. This could speed up the return to work.
- Improves services to people with disabilities, many of whom are older.
- Maintains and broadens state flexibility on supportive services, without which many older people cannot work.
- Enhances reporting requirements. Core programs will be required to report on performance indicators such the number of participants who entered and retained employment, median wages, and credential acquisition. Administrative reports on individuals with barriers to employment must be made public.
If effectively implemented, WIOA will result in a streamlined workforce development system that promotes job training and encourages greater collaboration between employers and training providers, such as community colleges. It will strengthen and streamline membership on the state and local workforce development boards that will implement WIOA as they did the Workforce Investment Act. In addition it will focus workforce development collaboration on the needs of regional economies, and promote career pathways and sector partnerships to foster employment in in-demand jobs. The law emphasizes the importance of having American Job Centers (one-stop career centers) create strong ties with employers by requiring Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) to identify strategies for engaging employers.
Implementing regulations were issued in 2016. Unfortunately, the regulations did little to ensure that older workers and other “individuals with barriers to employment” receive staff-assisted services. It is also unclear whether the challenges faced by older workers will be adequately considered in setting goals and measuring the performance of service providers. The extent to which outcomes for older job-seekers will improve under WIOA is likely to depend in large measure upon state and local implementation, economic conditions, funding levels, and other policy considerations. A variety of improvements to the public workforce system that extend beyond the new federal law could further enhance employment opportunities for America’s older workers and job-seekers.
Older workers seeking financial assistance for nontraditional educational programs have few resources at their disposal. Pell Grants have been a major source of federal funding for low-income undergraduate students to pursue their first bachelor’s degree or credential. And while Pell Grants are an important source of grant money for adults who want education and training, only a tiny proportion of all recipients are over the age of 50. Because the program was designed to help low-income undergraduates, some provisions are not suitable for older workers. For example, participants must be enrolled at least half time, which may be unfeasible for many older workers. Eligibility criteria premised on the previous year’s income may exclude the newly unemployed who had jobs with decent income. In addition, eligibility criteria were designed to determine how much financial support parents are allowed to contribute.
Moreover, older job-seekers may require or might benefit from extra help as they try to navigate the workforce development system. Special federal funds have been available to serve certain groups who enter the workforce development system, including veterans and people with disabilities. Older workers have not been singled out for special assistance, even though many have not had to look for work in decades and may need individualized help to use the system effectively.
In particular, older jobs-seekers may have little knowledge about available training programs. For example, they may not know whether particular programs offer value for money, whether they are likely to lead to sustainable jobs that pay good wages and benefits, and whether they themselves have the qualifications to successfully complete training. Specialized assistance in finding appropriate training might be especially helpful to older workers.
Workforce Development: Policy
Congress, federal policymakers, and the states should ensure that the workforce development system is accessible to and meets the needs of a diverse population of older workers and job-seekers. This diversity includes differences in education, experience, occupational background, employment barriers, disabilities, geographic and transportation barriers as well as gender, race, ethnicity, language, and cultural background. Individuals who face barriers in their efforts to find work should receive specialized attention and services that meet their needs.
Part-time work should be fully recognized in publicly supported job-training programs
Early assessments and individual assistance
Congress, federal policymakers, and the states should require workforce development centers to:
- Provide older workers and job-seekers with individualized in-person counseling, services, and navigation assistance by staff who are knowledgeable about and trained in cultural competencies and in the needs and circumstances of older workers. Staff should also be knowledgeable about the needs of local employers and moving older workers to employment.
- Provide assistance to unemployed workers early in their episode of unemployment.
- Counsel older workers and job-seekers on the availability of effective training suited to their needs and interests. Centers should also provide information about the cost of training, the availability of financial assistance, the likelihood of successful completion of any training program, the value to employers of any credential earned, the probability of finding employment after training, and the likely wages, benefits, and opportunities in that occupation.
- Facilitate the development of training and retraining programs that provide workers with skills leading to jobs in high-growth industries and occupations that pay well, provide employee benefits, and enable workers to continue to develop new skills while employed.
- Identify barriers to training and employment, and connect older job-seekers to appropriate supportive services such as transportation; literacy (including digital literacy), numeracy, and basic education; English language classes; behavioral competencies; mental health counseling; substance abuse counseling; domestic violence counseling; information about securing health insurance; and caregiving support.
- Develop relationships with local employers, including temporary employment agencies.
Congress and the states should fund the public workforce development system at levels sufficient to ensure that job centers have adequately trained staff, and sufficient staff and resources to serve the needs of older workers and others who face barriers in their efforts to find work. Priority for job training and placement services should be given to individuals with barriers to employment as specified in WIOA.
Congress should increase funding for SCSEP as part of the Older Americans Act and administered by the Department of Labor, funded separately from the workforce development system under WIOA.
Congress should reauthorize Trade Adjustment Assistance and enhance its benefits and services adequately to serve those whose jobs have been lost to trade and offshoring.
The federal government should provide funds to support subsidized employment programs that engage the private sector. These opportunities should be structured so as to protect workers from exploitation, require employers to abide by federal and state wage and hour laws, and prohibit the displacement of full-time work opportunities.
States should dedicate resources and designate an intermediary organization to foster local- and regional-level collaboration of job-training efforts among employers, workforce development centers, libraries, and education and training providers based on particular industries or industry sectors.
Evaluation and accountability
Federal and state policymakers should evaluate the effectiveness of publicly funded workforce development programs by making use of existing data on program participation and outcomes and collecting additional data as needed. These data should be collected and reported by age, as required by the WIOA.
Policymakers should ensure that the performance accountability standards established to evaluate America’s Job Centers do not penalize workforce development centers for serving older workers and other individuals with barriers to employment, even inadvertently.
The Department of Education should implement policies to eliminate fraud, deception, and abuse in institutions accredited to receive student financial assistance under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. These policies should seek to ensure that low-income students have access to adequate educational opportunities that lead to employment and whose costs, including debt burdens, are commensurate with income outcomes.
States should establish strong criteria for the authorization and licensure of educational institutions, and require accountability from institutions and programs providing education within the state.
Governors and WIBs should hold training providers accountable for preparing students for success in the labor market.
Education and training providers
State policymakers should encourage public two-year institutions of higher education and other career and technical education institutions to help displaced workers complete programs in an efficient and flexible manner and help them return to work as quickly as possible.
The Pell Grant program should be amended to improve access for older and displaced workers by providing support to individuals, including people with bachelor’s degrees, seeking short-term occupational programs. Pell Grants should also be available to adult learners who are financially independent but who may have experienced disruption in income due to unemployment.
The federal and state governments should develop integrated education and training models. They should allow recipients of job-training allowances and federal financial assistance to enroll simultaneously in adult basic education and literacy and postsecondary occupational and academic programs. Changes to student financial aid programs need to complement the recent reforms authorized in the WIOA.
Federal and state loans and loan forgiveness programs should be modified to recognize the needs and characteristics of older workers.
Coordination with education policy
To facilitate interagency collaboration and effectiveness, workforce development centers and their partners that identify possible patterns and practices of employment discrimination or other labor law violations, based on the experiences of the workers who utilize their services, should share that information with appropriate federal and state agencies.
Representation of older workers
Governors should require WIBs to solicit input from representatives of organizations serving or advocating on behalf of older workers, include them on WIBs and other advisory and decisionmaking bodies, and engage them in the development of the state plan required by WIOA.