Testimony of Ilana Boivie at a Public Roundtable Review of the District’s Workforce Development Programs and the Implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, January 13, 2016

Chairman Orange and members of the Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs, thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My name is Ilana Boivie, and I am a Senior Policy Analyst with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI is a non-profit organization that promotes budget and policy choices to expand economic opportunity for DC residents and reduce income inequality in the District of Columbia.

I am here today to testify that improving the workforce development system in the District of Columbia is of great importance to city residents and the economy, and that the creation of a state plan to comply with the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) can be used as a springboard to ensure that the system works in the best interest of city residents.

The District clearly needs a robust workforce development system. While DC’s overall unemployment rate has fallen in recent years, unemployment is still a huge problem for certain populations. Black residents are four times more likely than white residents to be unemployed, and residents with a high school diploma or less are nearly five times more likely to be unemployed than those with a college degree.[i] In addition, some 50,000 residents in DC lack a high school diploma, and some 81,000 residents have a high school education, but nothing beyond that.[ii] Meanwhile, a recent DCFPI report found that over the last three decades, wages have actually declined for all DC residents except those with a college degree.[iii]

These problems have been exacerbated by the District’s education and workforce development systems, which have had a history of poor-quality services, a lack of coordination across agencies and programs, and an inadequate focus on improving services through measuring performance.

The District’s state plan under WIOA is an opportunity to develop a comprehensive education and training system, with a clear mission and vision for the city’s workforce development system. The plan should include specific information on how the city will make significant changes to comply with and take advantage of the new Federal law. For example, the WIOA plan should show how different agencies will collaborate to ensure that all resident have access to the education and training programs they need, and it should identify how data systems will be developed to ensure robust performance measurements across agencies and programs.

Unfortunately, it is unclear whether the District’s first state plan under WIOA will incorporate such elements. Despite great interest from Mayor Bowser, the District’s workforce system has experienced challenges over the past year. The Workforce Investment Council (WIC) went without a full Board and a Board Chair until very recently, and even now, the WIC still is without a staff director. The WIOA plan that will be approved in the next two months has been developed without robust involvement of the WIC board, and without input from other stakeholders.

Meanwhile, the city is pursuing new programs, such as the LEAP Academy and expansion of SYEP, which may have promise, but have not been pursued in a way that is consistent with building a comprehensive system. In large part, they have been developed with little transparency or input from key stakeholders, without a sense of how they contribute to a comprehensive workforce development system, and without a clear plan to measure performance to ensure quality and efficiency.

With many challenges still facing the workforce development system, simply writing and approving the first WIOA state plan will not be a panacea; however, it is an important opportunity to start making meaningful improvements. Reforms to District’s system may likely be piecemeal, but that can be worthwhile, as long as the changes will serve to strengthen the overall system and are made in the context of a vision for comprehensive reforms. We all should acknowledge that building a robust workforce development system will likely take several years.

The first step thus should be to set a clear vision, as well as specific short- and long-term goals, including concrete action items.

The next step will be identifying the most pressing challenges and goals, and then developing a plan and timetable for addressing them. These may include:

  • Improving the performance of American Job Centers, including competitively bidding out their operations;
  • pursuing alternatives to Individual Training Accounts for use of federal and local training funds;
  • creating more “earn and learn” opportunities; or
  • creating robust sector partnerships with the assistance of workforce intermediaries

Given the likely need for incremental progress, each new program or program change should be assessed to ensure that it is contributing to a comprehensive whole. A checklist of criteria can be used, with the goal that the new idea or program must address as many of these items as possible before it can move forward. Questions to consider may include:

  • Does the program include employers, and literacy and job training providers, in the planning process?
  • Does it advance the goal of coordination across government agencies?
  • Was it built on expert knowledge and best practices?
  • Does it focus on the most disadvantaged workers and/or those with most barriers to employment?
  • Does it advance “earn and learn” opportunities?
  • Does it contribute to building sector partnerships and career pathways?
  • Does it include a focus on soft skills?
  • Does it build in robust evaluation and performance measures? and
  • Does it contribute to the goal that all learners have access to a career pathway by 2020?

The Workforce Investment Council, with support from the new Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney Snowden, should be empowered to lead these efforts to reform the workforce system, and oversee implementation of all systematic changes.

In summary, the city can make step by step improvements to its workforce development system by outlining a concrete workforce development plan, identifying key program changes to make, and assessing these changes against a specific checklist of criteria. In the long term, these changes can help thousands of city residents to receive the education and training they need to find and maintain meaningful employment.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify today. I’m happy to answer any questions.

[i] DCFPI Blog. “Hearing on Unemployment Worker Profiles Underlines the Need for Improved Services for Job Seekers.”

[ii] American Community Survey. “Sex by Educational Attainment for the Population 25 Years and Over.” 2009-2013 Five Year Estimates.

[iii] DCFPI. “Two Paths to Better Jobs for DC Residents: Improved Training and Stronger Job Protections.”