A College Degree No Longer a Guarantee

Reader Contribution by Camille Davis

We finally witness a piece of legislation that makes it through Congress, which was not only agreed upon by both parties, but was also applauded by our president; and it might actually turn out to be effective. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is an amendment and re-authorization of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which supported the nation’s primary programs and investments in employment services, workforce development, adult education and vocational rehabilitation activities. The new legislation is the product of a bipartisan, bicameral negotiation between the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and House Committee.

Bogged down by bureaucracy and innumerable, confusing programs, the previous federal job training system attempted to help individuals learn the skills needed to make themselves more viable on the job market, but it was clearly not working very well; every year $18 Billion tax dollars were spent on job-training programs, but only a fraction of the workers completing the training obtained jobs and barely 50% of the people who went through the federal job training programs completed with the actual skills they needed for the jobs they were seeking. Since 2003 attempts to reauthorize the legislation were undertaken in both the House and Senate, which culminated to an act which should help fix our broken job-training system.

The Job Crisis

Why is it broken, you may ask? Well, despite college enrollments increasing by 11% over the last decade, secondary education tuition costs have skyrocketed, landing the 2 million students who graduate every year an average $26,000 in debt. Federal loans now total $1.2 trillion, which is even higher than credit card debt. And each year, tuition prices sneak upwards.

So now we have massively indebted college graduates also desperately searching for a job along with the other 9.5 million Americans out of work. Currently the unemployment rate stands at 6.1% and more than 20 million Americans have been either out of work or underemployed since 2009.

However, we have 4.6 million job openings that are not being filled. In manufacturing alone, the backbone of middle-class opportunity, as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled. These “blue collar” jobs, now called “blue tech” jobs, can earn you $60,000 a year or more! From 2016 to 2002, job openings in manufacturing, production, installation, maintenance and repair are projected to outstrip the supply of available workers three-to-one. Despite all this incentive, the Wall Street Journal reports that 33% of small-business owners and chief executives could not find qualified applicants and therefore had unfilled job openings in June.

And the cause of the symptomatic unemployment and underemployment is found in the infamous skills gap. While these numbers may quantify the issue, they fail to capture the frustration of millions of Americans, many of them armed with multiple diplomas, failing to achieve that steady paycheck or make ends meet.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act: A Solution?

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act takes many provisions to streamline and modernize the maze that was federal job-training programs so that workers can access the right training, immediately. These include:

Ensuring pragmatic accessibility of one-stop centers and training providers
Enhancing the flexibility of funds
Setting common performance indicators for all core programs under the bill.

    In addition, the act eliminates 15 ineffective programs and prevents the creation of more bureaucracy or useless duplicative programs. It supports transitions to postsecondary education, training or employment and requires evaluation and research into adult education activities.

    Next, as Georgetown University’s 2013 report on college majors insightfully put it, not all college degrees are created equal. In fact, recent college graduates bear the greatest unemployment risk at an overall 7.9% unemployment rate. More than 36% of college graduates are not working in their chosen profession and many of them have been forced to accept minimum wage jobs. But the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is a way to provide funding for skills training and help relieve the over-saturation of certain job markets.

    President Obama applauded the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity act and said he was thrilled by the vote that would “help ensure that our workers can earn the skills employers are looking for right now and that American businesses have the talent pool it takes to compete and win in our global economy.”

    What We Still Need to Work On

    The Act should help Americans tap into the millions of unfilled jobs, especially in the manufacturing industry. However, the Act appears to be overlooking a huge job market: the sustainable job market. In June the EPA proposed the Clean Power Plan, which could provide some serious stimulus for our stalling economy. The solar industry alone is expected to create 22,000 jobs while the hydroelectric industry requires 700,000 jobs to reach a new capacity of 23,000 -60,000 MW. Furthermore, 8 million jobs in the construction, manufacturing and natural resources industries will be created by 2018. They will require workers having basic math skills and computer abilities and eventually having received various forms of vocational training such as solar training or technical training.

    Finally, through this act we are witnessing greater public encouragement of skill training as well an expansion of funding for college aid and vocational training. But as Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” said, “Many of the best opportunities that exist today require a skill, not a diploma”. To fill the skills gap we will also need to remove the stigma surrounding vocational education and understand that real, well-paid, skill specific jobs are out there for the taking; all we need is a qualified workforce.

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