Public Oversight Roundtable on the Workforce Investment Council and the District’s One Stops

Chairperson (Michael) Brown and other members of the committee:  Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the DC Workforce Investment Council (WIC).   Your interest and leadership on this topic is heartening, since the WIC has languished for too long as a weak policy body.  The city needs strong and sustained leadership to help District residents improve their skills and increase their employment rates and earnings.  The WIC should be an integral part of that leadership team.

As you know, the WIC is a federally-mandated entity created by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA).  The District’s WIC combines the functions of state and local workforce boards.  Overall, its task is to convene employers, education and training organizations, government agencies, unions, and other stakeholders to respond to area labor market needs and help the community thrive.   Specifically, it includes the following functions:

  • As a state body:
    • Developing a state plan
    • Developing and continuously improving statewide activities under WIA
    • Developing and improving comprehensive state performance measures to assess the system’s effectiveness
  • As a local body:
    • Developing a local plan
    • Selecting and overseeing the operators of One-Stop centers
    • Identifying eligible training providers (youth and adult)
    • Overseeing youth and adult services
    • Developing a budget and administering grants
    • Developing employer linkages and coordinating workforce development and economic development activities
    • Helping employers meet their hiring needs

The DC WIC has not acted in a leadership capacity in carrying out these roles.

As you well know, the WIC suffers from several problems:

  • It has not had a permanent executive director for several years, and currently has minimal staffing.
  • When the WIC did have more staff, they were not particularly strong in policy development or program oversight.  Nor were they strong in developing partnerships with nonprofits, government agencies, or the private sector.
  • The WIC does not have strong backing or interest from the executive branch, both in the current and previous administrations.   The executive branch has not made workforce development a priority, despite its relevance to the city’s economic competitiveness and social health.  Nor has the legislative branch previously focused sustained attention on workforce development.  
  • Related to the above bullets, the WIC does not have a strongly engaged membership, especially from the private sector, since it is not clear what the WIC accomplishes. 

These problems persist despite the energetic efforts of Bill Dean, the current chair and Barbara Lang, the previous chair.  Both dedicated their own staff to work on WIC-related matters.  The city is home to talented and committed individuals from the public, nonprofit and private sectors who care about workforce development but the WIC has not successfully harnessed their energy and efforts.

To be fair to the WIC, it has a hard job and many of its counterparts around the country also face difficulties in carrying out their mission.   The workforce development field is broad, as it includes a multitude of programs to help individuals improve their basic or technical skills, get a job, or get a better job.  Organizing multiple partners (employers, community colleges, public schools, nonprofits, government agencies, unions, and so on) around a focused agenda is challenging.  In other jurisdictions, high school career and technical education programs and community colleges are strong institutions and help form the backbone of the system.  The District is home to a weak career and technical education program in DCPS and only recently has the University of the District of Columbia embraced its community college function by creating the Community College of the District of Columbia.  Workforce development also presents thorny problems in how to best to assist individuals who may have low skill levels or other barriers to employment.  

And yet, the Workforce Investment Act has charged the WIC with specific responsibilities and unless the law changes, that is the WIC’s job.  In addition to the federal mandate, it is clearly in the District’s interest to convene regional and local employers, government agencies, nonprofits and unions to develop a policy agenda around employment and training. 

Given the circumstances, what should DC and the WIC do? 

1)     First of all, the WIC should hire an executive director and staff.  The lack of a director has been crippling, and it’s not clear why the position has been open for so long.   

2)     Build the WIC’s capacity incrementally, deciding on specific initiatives based on members’ interests, relevance to the local and regional labor market, and capacity (of the WIC itself and partners).  I offer some ideas below, but I’m sure that WIC members and others have additional options to add.

a.      Focus on stable or growing industry sectors in the city or region with  unmet labor market needs.  Develop partnerships of employers, education and training organizations, community-based groups and unions to meet these labor market needs, whether that is upgrading the skills of incumbent workers, improving worker retention, or identifying and training new hires.  Sometimes called a “sector-based” approach, the goal is to meet the needs of both workers/job seekers and employers.   The WIC could start with its sector analysis of a few years ago, but update it with interviews and candid discussions with employers to adapt for recent economic changes. 

b.      Develop performance standards for training providers and assess providers’ performance in complying with the standards and meeting employers’ and participants’ needs.

c.      Assess the One-Stop career centers and consider naming another  provider than DOES to operate one or more centers if the assessment finds that the quality of services at the One-Stops is inadequate.   

3)     Tie efforts to reinvigorate the WIC’s membership to the specific initiatives undertaken by the WIC, so that new or existing members are engaged with WIC activities and have a clear role.

4)     Clarify the WIC’s relationship with DOES.  The WIC and DOES obviously should have a close working relationship, but they have separate roles and responsibilities.  The WIC’s role is to set policy priorities and provide oversight of the workforce development system, while DOES operates workforce development programs.   The WIC’s current position within DOES and dependence upon DOES staff hurts its ability to act on its own as a separate entity. 

a.      I think the idea of transforming the WIC into a non-profit public-private entity is promising but given the resistance, it’s not worth pursuing in the current administration.   I would rather not put structure over function.  More important is whether the WIC has an engaged membership, the support of the Mayor, greater independence from DOES, and clear goals.   The WIC could work well or poorly in any number of organizational configurations. 

Thank you for the opportunity to submit this testimony and I’m happy to discuss this topic further.