Although I gave up watching State of the Union speeches about 20 years ago—they’re always boring and bombastic—this year’s rendition included a hearty endorsement of federal job training efforts. President Obama observed that, with more than 30 existing discretionary federal job training programs, the subject is bit confusing, and he detailed Uncle Joe Biden to study the matter with an aim toward simplifying things.
Call me cynical, but I have zero confidence that our VP can or will simplify job training programs. I wrote my first job training proposal 40 years ago, when I worked for Mayor Bradley shortly after arriving from the Great Frozen North. The proposal was for the fed’s first, and perhaps best, general purpose* job training program: the late Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program.
Unlike later federal efforts, CETA actually provided funding for public agencies and nonprofits to train and hire the unemployed. Although I never had a CETA job, I knew lots of people—most of them liberal arts grads like me—who got their career start with CETA. Since CETA was fairly successful, Congress, of course, got rid of it, replacing CETA with the Job Training and Partnership Act (JTPA) in 1982. JTPA was a definite step backwards, as it created a whole ecosystem of local and regional public/private boards around the country to pass out JTPA funds, which quickly became boondoggles. The idea of directly funding jobs was lost and replaced with the goal of “job development.”
Job development is like telling a teenager outside of a school dance that there are girls inside somewhere, while CETA provided the unemployed with a date with a “sure thing.” Big difference.
JTPA was such a fiasco that it was replaced with the even more convoluted and confusing Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. Despite its many flaws and limited virtues, WIA remains the primary federal job training funding vehicle. Given President Obama’s SOTU remarks and an ever-increasing pool of Americans who have dropped out of the workforce, WIA has been an obvious failure.
To get biblical, CETA begat JTPA, which begat WIA. There are also dozens of other federal job training programs. Almost every federal grant program that aims to help, among others, any at-risk child over the age of 12, young adults, women, ex-offenders and garden-variety adults, includes some aspect of job readiness and/or vocational skills training, either directly or by referral.
As a grant writer, I’m all for a plethora of job training programs. Why have 30 job training programs when 40 will do? A Wall Street Journal editorial this morning concludes that there are 47 federal job training programs, not 30, as President seems to think. My guess is that when Uncle Joe starts looking through the federal grant attic, he’ll find more than 47. The WSJ points out correctly that not a single job training program measures success by work workers hired. This is what makes job training grant proposals so much fun to write and why agencies should make every effort to get job training grants: there’s no way to evaluate success! And there’s less impetus to do so.
The states are also in the job training biz big time. For example, California just issued a RFP for an entirely new program, the California Career Pathways Trust, which has $247 million in precious state funds up for grabs. (California is also spending $60 billion on a so-called high speed rail system, so perhaps the Golden State is rolling in dough.)
Job training grants are ubiquitous and, no matter what Uncle Joe’s task force discovers or attempts to report, smart nonprofits, school districts and other public agencies will answer the challenge and apply for the huge grants that are and will be available in the job training trough in the coming months and years. As we’ve written about before, grant seeking organizations have to learn how to surf the grant waves. To quote Flip Wilson, job training grants are the church of what’s happening now.
* Federal jobs programs go all the way back to the Depression-era WPA, which focused on jobs, not training. By the time of the Great Society in 1965, the grant pendulum had swung to job training with the creation of Job Corps, which is still among the living. This is fairly amazing, since Job Corps spends about $79,000 per trainee to prepare 16 – 24 year olds for a minimum wage job. It is cheaper to send a kid to the University of Chicago than to Job Corps. If the “16 – 24” age sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same age range for our old pal YouthBuild. Actually, one can think of YouthBuild as Job Corps Lite, since it’s more or less the same program without a residential living component.