Guest editorial: Murray shows there’s hope for Congress

From the Spokane Spokesman-Review

Six months after negotiating a bipartisan budget compromise, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has again successfully worked with Republicans, this time to shape a long-overdue updating of the nation’s workforce development programs.

The Senate approved the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act on Wednesday by a vote of 95-3. House action and a presidential signature are possible before lawmakers take their summer recess.

A quick me-too from representatives, while not a given for the Do-Nothing 435, should follow because four of their number joined with an equal Senate cohort to write the bill. Among the House participants was North Carolina GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx, who has a lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO of 6 percent. This was not a stacked deck.

Programs to prepare the nation’s workers for a 21st century economy have become a confusing pile of some 50 different, sometimes overlapping initiatives that are not delivering employers the workers they need. With baby boomers retiring and taking their skills with them, the United States could be short 11 million workers with the college or post-secondary vocational training to replace them by 2022. Millions of jobs are unfilled today because workers with the appropriate skills to fill them are not available.

Reauthorization of the original 1997 training legislation should have been done over a decade ago but went nowhere until the recession and slow recovery finally focused congressional minds. Murray and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., took the lead in the rewrite, sometimes discussing the fine points on walks to the Senate floor from their adjacent offices.

The reform bill eliminates 15 programs – a Republican priority – and cuts a mish-mash of 50 metrics for measuring outcomes down to six for adults and six for youths; placement and earnings, retention and employer satisfaction among them. Those must be rigorously applied.

Washington was the model for many of the changes because of the already-close working relationship between employers and the state’s community colleges. Mark Mattke, as chief executive officer of the Spokane Area Workforce Development Council and chief workforce office for the Community Colleges of Spokane, has been the one-man nexus of those efforts.

He says the federal legislation’s focus on building skills applicable across an entire economic sector – health care and aerospace, for example – rather than a specific job, is a local practice. So is the emphasis on producing workers with internship experience, associate degrees or professional credentials like journeyman status that are transportable, not tied to a single workplace.

Washington’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training, or I-BEST, has been a notable success, combining job-skill training with remedial math and language instruction.

But the work that produced the training bill may be more important than the legislation itself.

Congress needs more of the honest brokering based on mutual trust exemplified by the budget and workforce training bill efforts. And very soon. Members could start by renewing the Export-Import Bank and replenishing the nearly exhausted Highway Trust Fund.

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