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A Bipartisan Skills Bill

A bill now working its way through Congress is a strong example of how work and education need to be closely entwined, experts say.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017
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A new bipartisan bill is working its way through a deeply partisan Congress. The bill, titled The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, updates the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, the federal law that provides funding to increase access to career and technical education, especially for disadvantaged students. Sponsored by Congressmen Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., the bill was overwhelmingly passed by the House of Representatives last year, but never made its way to the Senate before President Trump and members of the current 115th Congress took office.

"This is a bill that actually serves everyone . . . and is something we can unite around," says Rep. Thompson, adding that by expanding such training opportunities nationwide, more people can be better prepared to work in higher paying jobs that sustain them and their families. "My goal broadly is to restore the rungs on the ladder of opportunity."

This new bill includes a $10 million increase in career technical education -- from $1.13 billion to $1.23 billion over a six-year period -- and shifts some or most of the authority from the U.S. Secretary of Education to state and local leaders, he says.

Congressman Thompson is hopeful the legislation will pass both houses despite the steep budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration.

"This is a good, solid piece of legislation [that] was not put together in a back room or vacuum," he says, adding that the bill is based on collective feedback from senators, educators, students, parents and business representatives, including HR professionals. "It's a well-supported bill because we brought all stakeholders to the table. I hope there's a recognition of that on the Senate side."

On the employer side, there's little debate about the bill's significance. As managing director of human capital advisory at Atlanta-based Aon Hewitt, Pete Sanborn says some of his large clients like global automaker General Motors and Caliber Collision, the nation's largest collision repair company, have trouble recruiting talent in trade and high-end technical careers like data scientists.

"This bill is absolutely needed," he says. "One of [its] key impacts will be in strategic workforce planning . . . HR [needs] to really understand where the work is now, where it's going and have a bridge to gap the supply of capabilities with the demand by having a concerted strategy in cooperation with the schools."

Considering the White House's focus on creating good-paying jobs and bringing back manufacturing jobs to the U.S., Sanborn believes the same level of support for the bill will be offered by both the House and Senate.

Still, the bill's passage doesn't guarantee success. Schools could train many people who are unemployable, such as those with attendance problems, adds Neil Shastri, leader of global insights and innovation, also at Aon Hewitt. He says this has happened in other countries, which created bad press for the programs and governments.

Besides, there's still a stigma attached to trade careers. "Some of these jobs are not seen as 'cool,' " says Shastri, citing the example of a U.S. trucking company that couldn't recruit enough people to replace retiring truckers who earned over $100,000 a year plus benefits. "There will have to be a lot of push in terms of publicity around the fact that these are well-paying jobs."

HR professionals also need to offer additional training for career mobility similar to what Shastri has seen in China, Germany and other countries. How else can graduates apply their skills as plumbers or computer programmers? What other courses are being offered to qualify them for advanced positions or higher paying jobs?

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Likewise, program curriculum must teach what employers need in regard to hard and soft employee skills and competencies.

"Typically, what we hear from the employer side is that the educational system does not prepare students for the work they need them to do," says Lynda Zugec, managing director at The Workforce Consultants in New York. "This [bill] allows employers to better drive how students are educated [and] what they're learning . . . ."

If the bill becomes law, many new programs will be popping up, says Zugec, who adds that recruiters and others with hiring responsibilities must distinguish quality levels between programs. Which ones better equip participants with the necessary job skills and competencies?

Zugec says HR should start putting out feelers in the community or engage with local organizations that deliver training programs.

"Even now, it might be beneficial so that you can put together your proposals, systems and programs more quickly should [the bill] pass," she says. "Establish those relationships and determine who you can work with . . .  . Understand where the high-quality students come from and also how you can better increase the effectiveness of existing programs and who's willing to listen."

Meanwhile, she says, employers no longer depend on college degrees to differentiate candidates, since advanced degrees don't always lead to greater job success, awareness or even knowledge. The focus now is on whether an individual can contribute to a company's bottom line and make the company better in some way.

"Organizations are telling the education system, 'We're not getting who we need,' " she says. "They've been telling us that for years now. This bill is evidence that people are listening."

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