By Susan Loyer
Helping workers obtain the educational and vocational training needed to find jobs in this economy was the focus of a roundtable discussion that brought together directors from county Workforce Investment Boards statewide and federal officials.
Jane Oates, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration, and Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., met with the directors on Wednesday at the East Brunswick campus of the Middlesex County Vocational and Technical High School.
Sponsored by Holt, the group discussed proposed changes to the federal Workforce Investment Act. The directors also were asked for feedback on the proposed changes and any changes they might recommend.
The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 is the primary federal program that supports work force development. The WIA created a single, universal employment and training system -- the one-stop career system -- to serve the needs of all job seekers and employers. The one-stop career center system is managed by local Workforce Investment Boards, composed of representatives from local businesses, educational agencies, community-based organizations and economic development agencies.
The WIA is expected to come before Congress for reauthorization in the next several weeks.
The current law expired in 2003 and has been in need of reauthorization for a long time, Holt said.
"It was a really excellent piece of legislation," Holt said. "It was bipartisan, and it was practical. It looked at programs that had been tried, and it brought under this umbrella programs that worked. That was a different employment climate. In 1998, we were not in a recession and we didn't have millions and millions of people who were unemployed for months or years. The WIA that was passed then should be reauthorized with some changes. We should make sure these one-stop centers really work."
But Holt, a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said "with dueling versions" of proposed changes in the act, he was not sure whether any changes would be made.
Holt discussed the two bills he has introduced that are part of a Democratic-backed bill.
The Workforce Investments through Local Libraries (WILL) Act would help public libraries provide work force development services. The WILL Act would amend the WIA to include library representation on state and local work force investment boards. It also would recognize public libraries as an allowable "one-stop" partner and authorize new demonstration and pilot projects to establish employment resources in public libraries.
The Online Job Training Act would create a national Workforce Online Training Grant program for universities, community colleges, nonprofits, work force investment boards and others to increase the number of online training programs. Holt said the legislation is based on a successful online learning pilot program run by the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development and Rutgers University.
Oates, who said she is not representing the Obama administration, which does not have a position on either of the bills, said she is in favor of Holt's proposal regarding the libraries and online training. "I am not at all saying libraries replace the one-stops," she said. "Having the libraries partner with the one-stops gives us additional flexibility."
Oates said libraries offer more flexible hours. Young children could visit the children's section while the parents are job searching, she said.
And, she said, some people are not ready to come into a one-stop yet.
During the meeting, the group discussed various issues, including the structure of the Workforce Investment Boards, programs, appropriations and staff training.
June Reece, director of the Greater Raritan Workforce Investment Board, which covers Somerset and Hunterdon counties, said she was pleased with the discussion.
"I really appreciate the congressman's time in talking with us on the local level," Reece said. "We are the ones that deal with it on a day-to-day basis, and each one of our regions has something unique that may not trickle up to the government level. I welcome it and I'm hoping that we can continue to dialogue at the local levels with the higher officials, the ones that are actually putting the bills on the floor."
Jane Brady, director of the Middlesex County Workforce Investment Board, who supports both of Holt's bills, said she also was pleased with the meeting.
"Congressman Holt has always been very supportive of the work force system, and to have this opportunity to have him listen to and dialogue with WIB directors in the county is just invaluable," Brady said.