Understanding the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act

Reader Contribution by Camille Davis

Finally, a piece of legislation both parties agreed upon; and it’s a bonus that it actually promises to be effective. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity act is an amendment and reauthorization 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.

Why Change It?

First of all, the authorization for the statute expired in 2003; since then, attempts to reauthorize the legislation were undertaken in both the House and Senate which culminated in the act that was passed last month.

Next we can talk numbers. We hear about the 6.1% unemployment rate, which represents 9.5 million Americans out of work. More than 20 million Americans have been either out of work or underemployed since 2009. Simultaneously we have 4.6 million job openings that are not being filled. In manufacturing alone, the backbone of middleclass opportunity, as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled. These “blue collar” jobs should now be called “blue tech” jobs and can earn you $60,000 a year or more! 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. 

Unemployment, underemployment, unstable or temporary employment and limited advancement for minimum-skilled workers are all symptoms of the job crisis. But at its heart lies the infamous skills gap.

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 as the numbers listed above demonstrate, it was 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.

These numbers only quantify the issue. They fail to capture the frustration of millions of Americans searching for that steady paycheck, trying to provide for their families and make ends meet.

How Is It Going to Help?

A few provisions taken by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act include:

• ensuring pragmatic accessibility of one-stop centers and training providers

• enhancing the flexibility of funds, and

• 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. Other amendments include better alignment of disability programs, State and local plans to include advanced manufacturing workforce development strategies and provisions to support professional development for employment services staff.

In short, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act streamlines and modernizes the maze that was federal job-training programs so that workers can access the right training, immediately.

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.”


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.