Revamping our Workforce Development System: Recommendations for Improvement

One of the most underappreciated government-funded services available in any country is its workforce development system. At its core, such a system serves multiple purposes, which include (but are not limited to): rapid re-employment of displaced workers, enabling and providing for the improvement of the stock of human capital, linking individuals to stable employment at higher, self-sufficient wages, matching employer’s demand for workers with supply, and alleviating systemic poverty in the process. As such, it serves to complement the market and its various needs.

To a large extent, there have been many successes in workforce development. Every year in the United States, thousands of workers are trained and re-employed in a comprehensive network that is unique in structure to each state. I myself have been witness to this. For the past year, I’ve worked for an innovative, private workforce development firm called America Works. While my roles within the company have varied significantly, a large proportion of my time has been spent as a de facto case manager, helping to execute Milwaukee’s local implementation of the federally-funded Workforce Development and Opportunity Act (WIOA). From this vantage point, I’ve gained a lot of insight into how the workforce system as a whole functions. As noted, it has much to admire. But it also leaves a lot to be desired.

The following are my observations to fundamental problems within the workforce development system (with a focus on Wisconsin, though the problems are certainly not limited to Wisconsin), as well as possible solutions to each problem. Ultimately, the goal would be to achieve improvements in the measurable outcomes noted in the first paragraph.

  • Problem 1: A lack of inter-agency communication.  In Wisconsin alone, there are hundreds if not thousands of agencies and actors that serve various roles in the workforce system. These include the unemployment insurance agency, workforce development boards, sub-contracting workforce development agencies, training providers, Trade Adjustment Act (TAA) service providers, Wisconsin’s version of TANF (W-2), the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), and a myriad of social service agencies and community service organizations that can offer supportive services. Too often, though, these agencies and individuals within them fail to communicate with the others about the services they offer and how to best contact them. This leads to inefficient service provision and oftentimes a failure to provide timely services to address the needs and barriers of the workforce. Additionally, a lack of communication limits the marketing of services from one part of the system to individuals in another part of the system. Solutions: First, local workforce development boards should publish and distribute updated local workforce development service information. This can take the form of listing local services and the agencies or actors that provide them (as well as their contact information) on their website, as well as publishing brochures that contain this information and distribute them to local actors. Second, actors in the local system should take the initiative to have regular communication with the other actors, and, at the very least, establish a point-of-contact.
  • Problem 2: Too many unfunded mandates from the top-down. In the workforce development system, like in other government capacities, rules and funding flow from the top-down: federal to state to local. The problem with this central planning structure is that rules and regulations at the very top are complemented by further rules and mandates as you go down the pipeline. The result is a myriad of service mandates and reporting requirements that can make effective service provision challenging at the lowest levels of operation. There are countless examples. For example, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development (DWD) requires that clients have up-to-date assessments, which it defines as assessments taken with the past 6 months. This means that, for training or supportive services, clients would have to undergo 3-4 hours of additional testing if their assessments were 6 months 1 day out of date. This has been a consistent dilemma for service providers. Solutions: at higher levels of government, regulations and unfunded mandates should be limited, and regulations should be informed by reoccurring interviews with actors at the lowest level. Additionally, an easy, streamlined feedback system that flows from the bottom up, along with specialized, independent regulatory review divisions within each agency with the power to make changes could be of use.
  • Problem 3: Caseloads are too large for effective service provision. While not every program in the workforce system has “caseloads”, and while each program is different, the general observation by myself and others is that caseloads per case worker remain much too large for the latter to be effective. At least in WIOA, a caseworker is supposed to be the main point of contact for a client, helping to direct the client to resources and continually work with them to steer them into self-sufficient employment. This requires regular follow-up in order to be effective, especially for vulnerable clients, something which is difficult if not impossible with larger case loads. Solutions: more program resources should be used to hire new case managers to bring down average caseloads, and more funding at the federal and state levels should be appropriated specifically for this purpose. Managers at sub-contracting agencies should also be continually monitoring the caseloads of each worker, and re-distributing cases between workers as needed.
  • Problem 4: Overemphasis on work requirements, work search, and rapid work placement, regardless of appropriateness or fit. For the past few decades, American social assistance and workforce development programs have increasingly emphasized work requirements and rapid attachment to work, with many mandating such. While rapid attachment to work can absolutely be a good thing, and is the ultimate goal, these mandates have had unintended consequences. For example, take the unemployment insurance system. Here, workers are required to submit at least 4 work searches per week as a condition of receiving assistance, and are forbidden from denying any employment offer, regardless of the fit for the candidate. This is very inefficient economically. Another example is with the WIOA program. With a constant emphasis on employment, if an individual were to be placed in any sort of short-term employment where they are deemed economically “self sufficient” (using a state-designed “self sufficiency calculator”), they are automatically denied assistance for training, even if this employment is for temporary income-maintenance, doesn’t really pay enough for actual “self-sufficiency”, and isn’t the ultimately employment objective of the participant. This potentially prevents them from learning new skills in an in-demand sector, and short-changes the effectiveness of the program. Solutions: while solutions would vary based on the program, overall I think the “work at any cost” mentality needs a reboot. While employment is indeed oftentimes the best provider of human capital, and while rapid employment placement can boost long-term earnings prospects, it isn’t always the most effective up-front solution. Flexibility is needed.
  • Problem 5: Too many actors that impede progress of service provision. This problem seems to be especially acute in Wisconsin, where, in order for a service to be provided, approvals have to go through multiple layers and agencies, taking far too much time (and, oftentimes, to the point that the problem to be solved becomes irrelevant). For example, in WIOA, in order for funding for a training to be provided, a voucher would have to be created by a subcontracting agency, submitted to the local Workforce Development Board, within which it could go through multiple departments for internal review. Similarly, in order for an exited case to be re-added to a case load, a request would have to be made by the subcontracting agency to the local workforce development board, who would then have to approve it at the local level, who would then have to forward the request to the state, which would then have to ultimately approve the request and manually add it back on the statewide case management system. It’s insanity. Solutions: First, I think there should be fewer layers of agencies; perhaps just the state and local organizations. Second, while I do think states should have general guidelines and performance metrics to hold contractors accountable to, I’m generally in favor of dispensing a set amount of funds to contractors and leaving it up to them to use the funds as they see it to achieve performance metrics (similar to how charter schools operate). Now, I do think there should be random audits and some moderate reporting requirements, to hold organizations accountable. Charter schools have definitely taught us the necessity of this. That said, this structure would give service providers the freedom to innovate to produce better outcomes. With the current system, there are just too many guidelines and requirements to allow much room for innovation.
  • Problem 6:  Sluggish approval process of up-to-date, workforce-relevant training providers. This is perhaps the most frustrating issue I’ve repeatedly encountered as a case manager: the list of “state-approved” training programs in Wisconsin is horrifically out of date, and the process for adding a new training program is a bureaucratic nightmare. In order for a program to be added to this list, the provider has to submit an application to a local workforce development board. Once they approve it, it is then submitted to the state for review and approval. This can take months, if not longer. Worse yet, there is no established process for re-review of older training programs and providers. Solutions: First, if states are to continue using lists for state-approved programs, there needs to be a system of continual review, and staff dedicated to this endeavor. Additionally, the onus should be put on the training providers to regularly renew their applications; and if a set amount of time has passed (say, a few years) without this attempt, they should be automatically dropped from the list. Second, there should be fewer agencies having to review applications, to streamline approval. But perhaps the best solution is related to the solution for Problem 5: let individual service providers independently determine which programs they will fund (using funds provided to them by the state), and hold them accountable for employment results. This would bypass the need for an application and the bureaucracy and delays inherent in the current process, and would likely allow for funding for more up-to-date training.
  • Problem 7: Outdated technology and continued over-reliance on paper. Presently in Wisconsin’s WIOA program (at least in Milwaukee County), in order for an individual to be approved into the program, they must first fill out a lengthy, paper-based registration packet. After another lengthy process of entering data from the paper packets, copies of the packets must be made, organized in a physical folder, and the original sent via courier to the local workforce development board for manual approval. This can take 5-10 business days, oftentimes longer. This is craziness. Solutions: funds should be allocated to hire IT/programming specialists who can create up-to-date electronic registration applications and case management tools across the workforce development system. Additionally, encourage private providers to invest in their own up-to-date technology and be creative with solutions.

This list of observed problems and potential solutions is certainly not exhaustive, but it does give a broad overview of the main issues facing states and a potential platform for further discussion of solutions. Many if not most of these problems will undoubtedly take years to resolve, if they are resolved at all, largely due to the sheer number of actors and special interests involved. Hopefully, however, the initiative can be taken to revamp the system so as to achieve measurable gains in the vitality of America’s workforce.

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Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Just a few years ago, things were looking up for the Middle East.  The Arab Spring , in which peoples across the region rose up to overturn oppressive and authoritarian governments (many of them dictatorships), spread like wildfires in 2011 and 2012 across the region, raising the prospects of the establishment of liberal democratic institutions.  World oil prices, having plunged during the Great Recession (with some indices reaching a low of approximately $30/barrel in late 2008 and early 2009), rebounded sharply as the aughts came to a close, propping up the region’s oil-dependent economy.  After a brief conflict with Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew quieter, and there existed emerging optimism that American-led interventions would finally be drawing to a close.

What a difference a few years can make.  The Arab Spring has collapsed, having produced only one quasi-legitimate democracy (Tunisia).  Many authoritarian governments remain intact, and even the ones that were overthrown (such as the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak) were replaced by illiberal “democracies” that have since slid back towards authoritarian tendencies (or outright coup d’états).  Oil prices gains have stalled, having yet to reach their mid-2008 peak, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has yet again reared its ugly head.

Of the many fires now consuming the region, however, none are quite as disheartening as the disintegration of Iraq.  The steady march of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) across much of northern and central Iraq has caused horrific casualties and undermined the already struggling legitimacy of the regime in Baghdad (which has pretty much collapsed with Nouri al-Maliki’s resignation on August 14th, 2014) .  That this follows a multi-trillion dollar 9-year American-led war there, whose purported objectives was to establish a peaceful, legitimate Iraqi liberal democracy, makes this disintegration especially galling.

Barely two and a half years after pulling out the last American troops there, the US is (according to Vox.com) yet again contemplating sending in troops of some form or another, mainly to help save the minority Yazidi population currently trapped by the IS.  The decision as to whether to pursue further intervention into the broader conflict, however, is muddied by a few complicated factors:

  • Who exactly are the “good guys” and “bad guys” here?  This seems like a ridiculous question, especially considering the horrific brutality of IS tactics and the fanatical ideology they espouse.  However, just as in the Syrian Civil War, the existing alternatives to IS rule (including the pre-IS status quo) aren’t exactly ideal either.  Indeed, the (now nonexistent) Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki has reportedly continued to persecute Iraq’s Sunni minority, and has not formed a government representative or inclusive of Sunnis.  While most Sunnis do not appear to favor IS either, many are frustrated with the regime in Baghdad.  If the US intervenes in support of the Iraqi government, it would be doing this with full knowledge that it, like the IS, has also committed many abuses.  A choice has to be made between the lesser of two evils – you really can’t win here.
  • The IS is providing needed social services to many Iraqis.  According to PBS, the IS has established and funded a variety of social services to much of the population in its territorial control.  While this is obviously a tactic to buy-off the population and garner support, it does provide a modicum of short-term human security (and thus, potentially, stability).  Also, some services, such as healthcare, education, power, and water, etc.  have the potential to promote economic development and diversification (and thus long-run stability), although whether growth & development or quality services come first is admittedly a longstanding chicken-and-egg controversy in the economics profession.  Diversification, especially, is key to long-term economic prosperity in Iraq, which still disproportionately relies on oil production to generate wealth and to provide fiscal resources.  Such dependency reflects a classic case of the resource curse, whereby the resource at hand (in this case, oil) stunts development in the long run by appreciating the currency and making industrial exports uncompetitive.  Thus, ironically, the IS could be indirectly (and inadvertently) promoting the long-run social and economic well-being of the country via its provision of these services, and efforts to stop it could do the opposite.  Of course, this ignores the profound violence and economic disruption caused by the IS, not to mention the groups’ many other non-negligible negative qualities.  But it is something to consider by the Americans and the Iraqi state (and other involved actors) as they consider how to move forward.  Perhaps a reshuffling of Iraqi budgetary priorities is in order?
  • Substantial American opposition to US military intervention.  Simply put, Americans are really, really war-weary.  They are tired of the very real human and financial costs of war, and feel like Iraq (among other interventions) is a hopeless basket case that should just solve its own problems.  The difficulty that Barack Obama and the American government faces is the conflict between pragmatic action (which, given the uncertainty and number of variables involved, has yet to be defined) and appeasing the electorate (mostly for the sake of his party, as he is no longer eligible for reelection, although presidential legacy is always an influencing factor as well).
  • Would US intervention help or hurt Iraqi, American, and global interests?   What exactly are those interests in the first place?  These questions are very, very broad.  First, it must be asked which Iraqi domestic scenario is in the interests of the Iraqi people.  A Shia-dominated government?  A Sunni government?  A mixed government?  State partition?  Some have even questioned, especially since the Iraq war, whether democracy is even in Iraq’s best interest at this time, considering cultural factors and lack of established democratic precedent in the country.  This relates to the debate as to whether growth and form of government are best compatible, and which should be emphasized first.  For America and the globe, there are questions as to whether a certain Iraqi domestic situation is best for regional stability, especially when it comes to providing a counterbalance to the hostile Shia-dominated government of Iran.  How about oil price stability?  Since the commodity price surge of the 2000s, the global economy has certainly adjusted to higher prices and more prepared for price shocks via structural efficiency gains (note that the Great Recession was preceded by an oil price shock in which prices exceeded $100/barrel; prices have since consistently been around $100/barrel, and yet global growth has long since resumed).  Thus, conflict in Iraq might not be as much of an economic red flag as it once was.  But it still is important.  Considering all of these different questions (a non-exhaustive list which has been provided here),  it then has to be determined whether American military intervention of any form would help or hurt all of those interests.

Personally, I have no concrete opinion as to what course of action I think should be pursued.  Like so many subjects in the realm of public policy, each action has its costs and benefits, the net effect of which is extremely difficult to ascertain.  Literally millions, if not billions, of variables are at play here.  Yet in the end, a choice must be made by America’s leaders, even if that choice is ultimately to do nothing.  Regardless of what they choose, they can be assured to face unflinching judgement by millions of people with an understandable yet fatally simplistic view of the world who, like the rest of humanity, are limited in the amount and scope of information available to them.  That is the unfortunate reality of politics – a reality that, in this case, is further exacerbated by the life-and-death nature of the situation. It is an unenviable position for any policymaker to be in.  Invoking the old phrase, they are truly caught – caught between a rock and a hard place.