How can Washington streamline federal job-training investments that benefit employers and job-seekers alike?  That was the subject of a Congressional hearing on Wednesday, May 11, held by the House Education Committee’s Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training.

Lawmakers reviewed findings from a recent report by the Government Accountability Office that has set reformers abuzz on Capitol Hill. It identified a laundry list of 47 different employment and training programs spanning nine federal agencies—costing taxpayers some $18 billion in 2009 alone.  The report has led to calls for sweeping program consolidation and funding cuts.   At the hearing, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), subcommittee chairman, said her panel is

… Dedicated to improving job training opportunities by streamlining unnecessary bureaucracy, eliminating duplicative programs, … and encouraging the creation of high-skill and high-wage opportunities for workers in the global economy.

In the rush to consolidate and save money, however, lawmakers should not

… Overlook the critical role that the nation’s workforce programs have played during the recession and will play as the economy recovers,” urged Evelyn Ganzglass, a workforce expert with the Center on Law and Social Policy. “At a time when nearly 14 million Americans are unemployed, workforce programs are helping those out of work and the underemployed find jobs, prepare for jobs and build skills for the future,” she said. “These programs also are helping employers find qualified workers as the nation recovers from the worst recession since the end of World War II.

The debate is sure to inform efforts to renew the Workforce Investment Act in Congress this year, and is likely to drive other changes in the main federal education and training programs.  Corporate Voices’ president Stephen Wing, who helped CVS Caremark pioneer its model workforce training initiatives in his long career there, sees an opportunity in the renewed focus on improving federal workforce programs.

Employers can and must be active partners in preparing the talent pool of skilled workers, but most companies aren’t taking advantage of the the public workforce system,” notes Wing. “Corporate Voices is committed to building greater engagement of the private sector–making it easier for business leaders to take advantage of federal training resources, and ensure more skilled and competitive employees in the process.

Corporate Voices has also explored employers’ perceptions of the nation’s troubling “skills gap” as well as potential policy prescriptions to address it in several recent publications, including From an Ill-Prepared to a Well-Prepared Workforce (January 2011) and Across the Great Divide (March 2011).   In the latter, co-published with Civic Enterprises in association with other trusted partners, our research led us to conclude that the way we train our young people in America today no longer produces workers with the types of skills that our businesses want to hire.

Consolidating duplicative programs and reducing bureaucracy may be part of the answer, but fundamentally rethinking the way we approach education and skills training in a 21st-century global economy is another matter entirely.   We hope federal lawmakers keep both goals in mind as they pursue needed reforms this year.