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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Mar 20, 2013, 1:08 pm

Witness the GOP’s Vanishing SKILLS Act

BY Mike Elk

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, speaking here at CPAC 2013, says the SKILLS Act will solve the country's jobs crisis, but Dems and labor don't agree with him.   (Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons).

In a major push to rebrand the GOP as in touch with the need for jobs, House Republicans staged a two-day debate last week on H.R. 803, the SKILLS Act (Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills Act). While the bill passed, the effort went off more a whimper than a bang.

The GOP touts the SKILLS Act as a necessary solution to the job crisis. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) argued in a floor speech on Friday:

First of all, the SKILLS Act streamlines the complicated maze of existing federal programs. Rather than spending time figuring out which one of 30 different programs you are supposed to go to, this bill creates a one-stop and creates a one-stop Workforce Investment Fund. Second, if you need job training, the SKILLS Act eliminates bureaucratic hurdles–such as first requiring you to work on your resume and develop an individual employment plan–so that you can access the training that you need right away. Third, by emphasizing the role of local employers on your local workforce training board, the SKILLS Act helps ensure that the training you receive are related to the jobs actually available in your area.

The act is the first concrete step in Cantor’s “Make Life Work" agenda, an effort to redefine the Republican Party as the party of jobs. Cantor unveiled the rebranding earlier this year in a February address at the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute, a prominent conservative think tank. “Federal jobs training programs ought to make it easier for Americans who are out of work or who are changing careers to get the skills they need,” said Cantor.  “Yet today, the federal government has a patchwork of over 47 different overlapping programs that are not dynamic or innovative enough to meet the needs of employers or potential employees. We can fix this, and we should be able to muster bipartisan support to do so.”

The SKILLS Act, however, has thus far failed to draw bipartisan support.

Democrats say that lumping together all federal workforce training programs into a single source of funding would eliminate programs tailored to help specific communities such as people with disabilities, veterans and people of color. Democrats are also concerned by the fact that the SKILLS Act would increase the number of employers on local workforce training boards and decrease the number of community representatives.

Nor is labor happy. The Workforce Stakes Group, which includes 32 labor and community groups involved in job training (including the National League of Cities and the United Way), has opposed the bill, stating:

The group believes that wholesale consolidation of key programs, as proposed in House legislation, The SKILLS Act (H.R. 803), would move workforce  programming in the wrong direction. Such a one-size-fits-all system risks becoming an underfunded system that lacks the resources and sophistication needed to meet the unique needs of certain individuals who must overcome population-specific employment challenges.

The White House, too, declared its opposition:

While H.R. 803 takes some positive steps, the bill does not adhere to the Administration's key principles for reform. The bill would eliminate, or allow the consolidation of, many targeted programs, without providing the critical assistance needed by vulnerable populations such as veterans, low-income adults, youth, adults with literacy and English language needs, people with disabilities, ex-offenders, and others with significant barriers to employment. H.R. 803 would freeze funding for the next seven years and would fail to support efforts to innovate and replicate effective approaches.

Democrats say that Cantor scheduled two days of debate on the bill in the hope of attracting media attention. Yet many major news outlets—including ABC and the New York Times—failed to cover the event. Despite the big showing, the bill only narrowly squeaked through by a vote of  215-202, receiving a plurality but not a majority of votes. Five Republican and ten Democratic members abstained.

“This bill was supposed to be the kick-off to Leader Cantor’s rebranding strategy, but all they could muster was 213 votes from the GOP caucus,” commented House Education and Workforce Democrats spokesman Aaron Albright to Working In These Times. “I guess it’s back to the focus group since not everyone is buying it.”

The bill is currently on its way to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it seems unlikely that it will pass in its current form.

Majority Leader Cantor’s office did not return request for comment.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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