High Road WIOA: Building Higher Job Quality into Workforce Development

Stephen Herzenberg
Publication Date: 
December 17, 2015

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In response to the federal Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA), most states are now in the latter stages of developing federally required plans and policies for operating their systems of workforce development under WIOA. This process creates an unprecedented opportunity to build into each state’s plan concrete ideas for using state and local workforce policy and practice to boost job quality. By developing new policies that help local boards connect workers to the best possible jobs, and supporting employers – individually and in partnerships – with efforts to improve jobs, WIOA implementation can create a “high road in workforce development.” It can make workforce systems an enduring force for better job quality.

The arguments in favor of more strategic incentives for better job quality are clear. Too many workers toil in jobs with great instability – high levels of staff turnover, volatile and unpredictable hours, and, at the extreme, “wage theft” that illegally reduces their pay. Training and connections provided by the workforce system should systematically and strategically help workers move away from instability and towards better and more stable jobs. First, and most obviously, connecting workers with the best quality job possible serves job seekers better. More stable work will mean higher income, longer job tenure, and better schedule predictability. But beyond that, WIOA policies for job quality help protect the public investment in training by ensuring that investments in training are not simply lost in a revolving door of turnover. Further, policies that focus on better quality jobs help make WIOA resources a reward for employers who are already treating their workers with greater care, which reduces the risk of providing a resource to low-road competitors who may waste the investment. The job quality policies outlined in this brief are explicitly intended to strengthen job quality for clients of the system, reward a region’s high-road employers, and secure the maximum results from public investment by ensuring that grants are awarded to the programs most likely to provide returns on training.

State WIOA plans provide an opportunity for states and local workforce leaders to develop a more structured and strategic policy that builds job quality into the systems’ connections to employer partners. In the past, local systems have sometimes too indiscriminately treasured any employer connection without paying sufficient attention to the quality of jobs the employer offers. The workforce system needs to serve both employers and job seekers. With limited resources, investments should be carefully focused to create opportunity for workers and supply skills to employer partners with good jobs.

In this brief, we propose three concrete disbursement policies that allow for more effective and focused use of WIOA resources, by ensuring that employer partners are the best possible fit for job seekers in the system. Many states or local areas already have some language supporting job quality – for example, seeking to target scarce training dollars to occupations that meet self-sufficiency wage standards (i.e., pay enough to support a family without public assistance). As this indicates, the goal of promoting the highest possible job quality for workers helped by the system is uncontroversial. The next logical step is to make this commitment more concrete and direct investments in ways that help secure the job quality outcomes on which there is strong consensus.

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