Investing in a Youth Workforce

Education

For the first time in our nation’s history, the federal high school graduation rate has reached 80 percent. While this is a great sign of progress, we must continue to invest in our high school students to ensure that all children have the skills necessary to compete in today’s job market. With this in mind, the recent bi-partisan, bi-cameral effort to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act should come as a rare sign of promise from Congress.

Last week, the House passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act with overwhelming support, sending the bill on to President Obama to sign into law in the coming weeks. The reauthorization will preserve successful youth-focused programs including Youth Activties, YouthBuild and Job Corps and expand funding to some of our most underserved youth populations. The new legislation ensures that 75 percent of funding for youth training and employment services will be reserved for out-of-school youth, an increase from the 35 percent floor set under previous WIA provisions. These youth are often difficult to reach and are in need of more intensive, long-term interventions to put them on track to achieve the same results as their in-school peers. Of that 75 percent, 20 percent will be set aside to improve job prospects through work experiences that give young people the skills, knowledge, and expertise employers are looking for.

Congress is also taking steps to provide students at-risk of dropping out with the training and services they need to pursue a career in today’s economy. By expanding the definition of disconnected youth to include students who are over-age and under-credited, federal workforce programs will now be able to accurately identify and assist the youth who can be best served from these initiatives. The legislation will also make these programs more efficient through streamlined accountability measures that will reduce unnecessary paperwork for federal workforce programs receiving multiple funding sources.

Finally, the reauthorization will increase services to both English language learners and youth with disabilities. Both groups have been previously underserved through WIA but will greatly benefit from the support of these federal programs. Specifically, state vocational rehabilitation programs will be required to spend at least 15 percent of their federal funding on youth with disabilities. The graduation rate for students with disabilities is 20-percentage points lower than the national average, so these funds will be a huge help in supporting these students’ transition from secondary school to postsecondary programs and employment.

The progress we have made in reaching an 80 percent federal graduation rate is something to be proud of, but as advocates, we must continue to fight for programs like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act that improve outcomes for all children.