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Guest Column: Regional Job Training to Help Reduce Income Inequality

By Nancy Eaton

In 2014, in a rare instance of bipartisan accord, Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to update and improve the effectiveness of job training programs that are funded with federal money. One of the Act�s provisions requires Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) within a state to coordinate planning and job training services so that local WIBs will start collaborating with each other on a regional basis.

Participants in the workforce development system, which includes community colleges, job training nonprofits, labor unions, and career academies among others, had few incentives for regional cooperation prior to the passage of WIOA. Within any of California�s regions there can be numerous WIBs with a multitude of workforce programs focused on the state�s leading industries (for example, biotechnology, food manufacturing, energy, or information technology). Not all of the programs, however, may have close ties or partnerships with employers. To compound the problem, unemployed or low-skilled workers may not always know where to get training, cannot evaluate how effective that training will be, and cannot predict whether such training will ultimately lead to employment in a given field.

In contrast to the existing approach, the public/private job training partnerships envisioned by WIOA would create a regional workforce development group that includes industry partners. Group members that represent private regional companies in banking, finance, engineering, construction and health care partner with public groups representing community colleges, schools and foundations to bring a broader perspective on the regional economy and can coordinate across cities and counties in order to adjust to regional employment dynamics. For example, regional coordination brings efficiency by preventing every WIB, community college, or other job training organization from pursuing the same industries or occupations. By removing this overlap, the different job training organizations can specialize, develop strong ties with industry employers, and obtain guidance and technical assistance from their industry partners. A further benefit of WIOA�s new regional approach is that addressing the job skills needs of regional industries potentially gives private employers the ability, and the incentive, to meet funding gaps that public training organizations are unable to fulfill.

As states implement WIOA�s new approach to job training, they will expand the pool of qualified workers for regional employers. To help do this, the Act allows states to set aside as much as 15 percent of WIOA funds for innovative programs. In terms of industry-driven partnerships, these programs could include more work-based or on-the-job training, or skills training that leads to industry-recognized post-secondary credentials (e.g., certification in fields like metalworking, machining, industrial manufacturing, network administration, food handling, customer service, etc.).

The Slingshot initiative is California�s new regional approach to workforce training fostered by the WIOA reforms. Slingshot provides grant funding from the state to regional job training programs that are led by collaborations of employers and training organizations. This sectoral approach to workforce development has already gotten underway with programs in the Inland Empire, the Sacramento region, the Central Valley, the Bay Area, and northeastern California.

For example, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have formed the Inland Empire Regional Collaborative (IERC), a coalition of 30 industry leaders that are working with public institutions to strengthen the regional economy through education and training curriculum. IERC partners are in the process of building a health care workforce intelligence system that collects industry employment data to track labor shortages and oversupply. The system will also monitor emerging health professions and prepare five-year industry forecasts. The combined output of the monitoring and workforce intelligence systems will help guide education and skills programs by training organizations as well as business strategy by regional health care employers.

With an agricultural economy on a global scale, the nine-county Sacramento region has an agriculture and food business cluster with an estimated 37,000 workers and $3.4 billion in annual output. Valley Vision is a coalition of four Sacramento region WIBs that are optimizing workforce development for six regional industry clusters including food and agriculture. By working with food industry partners and community colleges, Valley Vision is creating a roadmap for workforce training. This includes compiling an inventory of regional agriculture and food education and training providers, and preparing a gap analysis that assesses industry trends, challenges, and anticipated workforce needs. Based on input from industry, Valley Vision�s members are streamlining the region�s job training resources, and supporting the growth of agricultural innovation and exports.

What all of California�s Slingshot programs share in common is the adoption of industry-driven priorities for workforce development. This approach offers opportunities to unemployed and low-wage workers because training programs target the job skills that employers actually need. It also sets up a system that helps employers find skilled workers more easily. The resulting job creation fostered by the Slingshot program will ultimately provide new career prospects for the unemployed and may also help to avoid a disproportionate level of income inequality from becoming a recurrent feature of California�s economy.

Nancy Eaton is a vice president at PES and is a member of Treasurer John Chiang�s Council of Economic Advisors. The opinions in this article are presented in the spirit of spurring discussion and reflect those of the author and not necessarily the Treasurer, his office or the State of California.