Let’s modernize workforce development

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category icon Columns, Opinion

From impromptu negotiations down the hall to discussions on the subway to the Capitol, sometimes, something as simple as having offices next door to one another can make all the difference in Congress these days.

As colleagues on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, we’ve had our share of disagreements on policy, but as next door neighbors on the first floor of the Russell Senate Office Building, we’ve taken advantage of our proximity and our unique ability to work together and reach a bipartisan, bicameral deal to reauthorize and improve our federal workforce development systems for the first time in almost two decades.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which passed the Senate June 25 (and the House on July 9), is the product of years of work and months of bicameral discussions with six of our colleagues, Republicans and Democrats from both the House and Senate.

The bill, which now heads to the president’s desk, will bring our federal workforce development and job training systems into the 21st century at a time when our economy needs it most.

Each year, federal workforce development programs serve roughly 20 million Americans, one in eight men and women of working age, but in 2014, we’re still training those workers with programs written in the 1990s. That’s no way to prepare someone for a job with Boeing in Washington state or Siemens in Georgia.

So our legislation doubles down on the federal workforce development programs that work and improves or eliminates programs that have become outdated. It creates a federal workforce development system that’s more nimble, better aligned with the modern needs of new businesses, and more accountable, so we can continue to make it better in the future.

Neither of us got everything we wanted in this bill — nobody did — but we all knew that our workforce programs, which have been due for reauthorization for more than a decade, simply needed to be improved. So, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

Here in the Senate, we worked across the aisle to pass a reauthorization bill through the HELP Committee, and in the House, our colleagues crafted a version of their own. Then, we honored an old Congressional tradition that is too rarely used these days, and we met in the middle.

Since then, a long and diverse list of businesses, labor, and workforce development leaders, as well as governors and mayors, community colleges and economic developers from around the country have voiced their strong support for the bill.

And that wide-ranging support further solidifies what the two of us have known all along: that federal workforce development programs are critical for workers, for businesses, and the economy.

Each of us has heard from hundreds of businesses in our home states, from video game design firms in Washington state to shipping and maritime companies in Georgia, who desperately want to hire workers with high-tech skills and expertise for 21st century jobs.

And each of us has met with workers from places like Tacoma, Wash., and Savannah, Ga., who have been laid off and need new training, new skills, and new jobs to support their families.

We were proud to work together, break through the gridlock and push this bipartisan, bicameral bill through Congress. But our work together won’t end when this bill is signed into law. We still plan to walk over to each other’s offices, talk about where can find common ground, and work together to build on this bipartisan deal and continue helping workers, businesses, and the economy.

Murray is Washington’s senior senator, serving since 1992. She is chairwoman of the Budget Committee, and also sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; the Appropriations; the Rules and Administration; and the Veterans Affairs committees. Isakson is Georgia’s junior senator, serving since 2005. He sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; the Finance; and the Veterans Affairs committees.