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WORKFORCE: Key federal law may finally happen this year

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A view of the rare-earths mine run by Molycorp

Aug 2, 2013 | The Press-Enterprise

A lot has changed over the past 15 years, including ways people get information, go shopping, watch movies, heat their homes and dozens of other activities.

One thing that has not been updated is the way the way the federal government supplies money to allow counties and cities to train people to build some of the items used in the 21{+s}{+t} century. But that could change by the end of the congressional year, workforce advocates in Inland Southern California say.

Congress is now much closer to reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, the 1997 law that outlines how much federal money for job training and placement is given to local governments every year. A Senate bill sponsored by ranking members of both parties was proposed in late July and could be the impetus needed to get a law passed this year.

“This is the closest we’ve gotten to WIA reauthorization since 1998, and we’re very excited that it may actually, finally get updated,” said Jamil Dada, chairman of Riverside County’s Workforce Development Board.

The Workforce Investment Act was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton in 1997 and went into effect the next year, replacing the Job Training Partnership Act. The law, which created 540 local workforce boards similar to the one Dada chairs, called for a reauthorization in 2003, which would have adjusted funding levels and do additional fine-tuning.

‘SO OUTDATED’

That adjustment is, as of 2013, 10 years overdue. The result is that the Inland counties have no idea how much job-training money they are getting from year to year. The law operated off continuing resolutions passed every year, which meant that the funding declined almost every year. It did increase during the first year of President Barack Obama’s administration.

“It’s now so outdated. Its provisions don’t apply to the economy anymore,” Dada said. Initiating a job-training program that’s tailored to a county’s needs is typically not a one-year effort, Dada said. It means developing a program, contracting with a trainer and recruiting people who want to learn a new trade.

That was very hard for a local workforce board to do when the next year’s funding was a big question mark. “It was, ‘Here’s your allocation this year and, by the way, we don’t know what you’re getting next year,’” Dada said.

The Senate’s bill, S-1356, was approved without major changes on an 18-3 vote after a hearing Wednesday before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Advocates are hoping it can be voted on sometime during the fall, when Congress comes back from a summer recess.

The bill was introduced by Democrats Tom Harkin, of Iowa, who chairs the HELP Committee, and Patty Murray, of Washington, along with Republicans Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee and Johnny Isakson, of Georgia, giving it the bipartisan backing not often found in Washington, D.C., these days.

“We’re certainly optimistic, but we’re taking it one step at a time,” said Sean Coit, a spokesperson for Murray’s office.

To get a law passed in a way that makes most workforce development advocates in San Bernardino and Riverside counties happy, many of the differences in the Senate bill and a bill passed by the House of Representatives four months ago have to be resolved in a conference committee, assuming the Senate bill is approved on the floor.

The House bill, dubbed the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills, of SKILLS Act, was passed in a close vote on March 15. More than a dozen Republicans crossed party lines and voted against the measure, including Inland Reps. Gary Miller, R-Rancho Cucamonga, and Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley.

LOCAL INPUT DESIRED

It was opposed by Miller, Cook, a dozen other Republicans and most Democrats because they believed it would dilute of local input and control over job-training programs. The SKILLS Act would fund programs through block grants handed to the states and would have given governors considerable control over local boards.

In a state as large and diverse as California, that worried many Inland Empire people. Sandy Harmsen, director of San Bernardino County’s Workforce Development Department, said Wednesday’s vote in the Senate committee calmed a lot of those worries.

“They have really defined local control as local control,” Harmsen said. “I’m feeling really confident that it’s coming together.”

Workforce development leaders say different regions have specific needs. For example, a 2012 study found that the Inland Empire will need a significant number of health-care workers, including doctors, physicians’ assistants, medical technicians and pharmacists, in the next few years.

Also, San Bernardino County is the site of a mine operated by Molycorp that harvests rare earth, a type of mineral used in the manufacture of computers, cellphones, hybrid vehicles and many other items. The mine, located near the Nevada border, is the largest rare-earth deposit outside China.

A training program that educates workers about mining rare earth could ultimately be a good career move in the Inland area. But it also could fall off Sacramento’s radar, making this an example of why local control is needed.

Harmsen also praised the language of the Senate bill that endorsed the roles existing businesses play in worker training. In the Inland area, many trainees hold positions at existing companies while they learn a trade, with salaries paid by grant money.

“Business has to be at the table,” Harmsen said. “The things that we’re looking for (in the bill) are in there.”

Business, labor and government groups issued statements supporting the Senate committee vote Wednesday. Sen. Alexander, the ranking Republican, said he’s looking forward to taking it the Senate floor. “With unemployment still at 7.6 percent, Americans can’t afford to waste any time training for skills that employers don’t need,” Alexander said in a statement. “This bill takes a step in the right direction to update our workforce investment programs and I look forward to improving it further on the Senate floor.”

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