January 5, 2022
At a Glance
Supporting learners and workers must be a priority in the year ahead. JFF recommends these critical policy actions for equitable economic recovery and the rebuilding of our nation.
Last year proved busy on Capitol Hill: though partisan debate and disagreements blocked passage of key legislation, some progress was made toward recovery from the health and economic effects of COVID-19. In March, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act to bring immediate relief to millions of Americans, and in November, a $1.2 trillion bipartisan “hard” infrastructure bill to invest in the rebuilding of our nation and spur job growth.
Despite these efforts, there’s a lot of work ahead for legislators to ultimately achieve an equitable economic recovery. JFF recommends Congress take these six critical policy actions in 2022 to ensure systemic transformation, foster community revitalization, and provide all individuals with the career, educational opportunities, and holistic supports they need to succeed.
Pass Build Back Better (BBB)
The Build Back Better legislation, which passed the House last fall, is currently at a standstill in the Senate. This bill is too valuable for policymakers to remain idle. BBB makes important investments in family and child care programs that provide those hardest hit by the pandemic, especially women, with the supports they need to return to work. The bill also provides funding for critical education and workforce efforts, including investments in evidence-based practices that help more students complete their degrees or credentials; expanded access to high-quality in-demand training through sector-based opportunities and proven approaches like apprenticeships; and general increases in annual spending on workforce development, helping people acquire the skills necessary for reemployment in careers that pay family-supporting wages.
The Senate must restart negotiation conversations and reach a compromise quickly to ensure individuals and families have skill development opportunities and at least some support to help them rebound and advance. It is critical to our nation’s recovery.
Fully Fund and Transform Our Nation’s Workforce System
The U.S. workforce development system is critical to the economic mobility of millions of Americans, but it is undervalued, underfunded, and in need of significant modernization. JFF has nine steps policymakers can take to transform our workforce development system, a significant number of which can be achieved through the reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Congress should consider these actions—focusing on increasing investment for direct service delivery, ensuring quality of education and training programs, encouraging stronger employer engagement, and making conscious policy decisions related to equity—to ensure the system better serves individuals facing increased barriers and helps to close equity gaps in credential attainment, employment, and wages. Additionally, as part of these efforts, Congress should increase investment in career navigation services. Now more than ever, people need more accessible ways to understand the value of postsecondary options in the labor market and job openings. Our nation needs a better system that helps individuals make informed choices about career paths and employment. JFF urges our leaders in Congress to create a workforce system that works.
The Build Back Better legislation, currently at a standstill in the Senate, is too valuable for policymakers to remain idle.
Rethink High School to College and Career Transitions
A high school diploma alone is no longer a ticket to a family-supporting job with growth opportunities; it is increasingly important that all learners and workers earn postsecondary credentials to have a chance at economic advancement. Congressional leaders should seek ways to strengthen the connection between high school, college, and careers, particularly for Black, Native American, and Latinx students, and students experiencing poverty.
This includes passing legislation that would make earning college credit in high school, through dual enrollment or early college high schools, accessible and attainable for more students. It also includes supporting big and transformative changes, such as the vision of JFF’s Big Blur, to strengthen the federal government’s role in improving education and workforce development financing and accountability systems, strengthening and unifying the governance between K-12, higher education, and workforce, and building up and supporting an effective educator pipeline that is equipped to support students during the last two years of high school and the first two years of postsecondary education.
Transform and Modernize Higher Education
Legislators should not waste time tackling one of the most pressing issues facing the nation: a broken and outdated higher education system that no longer meets the needs of today’s learners, workers, and our growing economy. Congress should expand Pell grants to cover high-quality short-term job training programs and provide regulatory clarity and thoughtful guardrails for the income share agreement market.
Congress should also comprehensively reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) in four key ways:
- Improve higher education accountability and transparency
- Make financial aid more flexible
- Connect higher education to in-demand, high paying careers
- Spur innovation and testing alternatives and accelerated delivery methods
These core actions would ensure our nation’s higher education system helps a broad range of individuals successfully access and complete postsecondary education and prosper in the economy.
Expand Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning Opportunities
Throughout our nation’s history, the U.S. apprenticeship system has been a powerful tool in moving people into middle-class careers. But the National Apprenticeship Act has not been updated for over 80 years. Congress must reauthorize this act to reflect current economic realities and employer needs and increase investments across apprenticeships. This includes targeting funding for the expansion of youth apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships, encouraging apprenticeship opportunities for individuals who face barriers to employment, and creating more apprenticeship opportunities in non-traditional occupations.
We also encourage Congress to support the design and scale of other high-quality work-based learning models to ensure all young people and adults have access to career experiences that prepare them for in-demand employment and advancement.
Revitalize Regional Economies
An inclusive, equitable recovery must take place across all communities of our nation. This will mean reforming existing laws and designing new proposals and initiatives that allow for state and local ability to guide policy and practice to meet the unique needs of their communities.
As part of this effort, Congress should consider:
- Requiring all large-scale infrastructure projects to carry out a community benefit agreement to ensure people from the community are benefitting from available jobs
- Providing employer incentives as well as incentives for system leaders to ensure inclusive outreach, recruiting, support, and hiring practices are happening on the ground
- Updating the Opportunity Zone program to focus on providing incentives for the equitable use of capital and funding for community-focused intermediaries to coordinate planning and projects
- Increasing support for and coordination with Community Development Financial Institutions by updating the Community Reinvestment Act
Congress can also focus revitalization efforts across the issue areas listed above by creating funding opportunities and initiatives in Build Back Better, WIOA, HEA, and Apprenticeship legislation that ensure regional leaders across different geographies have the tools to implement policies effectively that better benefit their community.
As we start a new year, it is essential that Congress find bipartisan solutions to better support and prepare today’s learners, workers, and jobseekers.
Expectation for 2022
As we start a new year, it is essential that Congress find bipartisan solutions to better support and prepare today’s learners, workers, and jobseekers. As skills development remains at the forefront of policy conversations, national leaders need to remember the importance of modernizing and transforming education and workforce development programs, and specifically, their responsibility for preparing America’s workforce and supporting the populations in most need. Across all the areas listed above, Congress should continue to provide key programs with essential funding.
JFF’s policy team will be watching this Congress with hopes of greater success in 2022.