Taking on Workforce Development — Again

Regional Center for Workforce Education and Training, Woodbridge Campus, Northern Virginia Community College,

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

The Richmond Times-Dispatch (RTD) reports that Governor Glenn Youngkin plans to present a major restructuring of Virginia’s workforce development efforts to the 2023 General Assembly. I commend the Governor for taking this issue on. It is the sort of “good government” initiative that needs to be done, but requires a lot of work for which there is little political payback, even if it is successful.

“Workforce development” is a broad term. From one perspective, one of the primary functions of all the public education programs supported by the state from kindergarten through graduate school is to provide Virginians the skills and knowledge they will need to enter the workforce. However, in the context being discussed in this article, the term refers to smaller, specifically targeted programs.

These programs are spread throughout state government in a myriad of agencies. The RTD article describes it as spanning “12 state agencies and 20 outside groups and some 800 programs.” The existence of local workforce investment boards and the availability of federal funding adds to the complexity. Another complicating factor is the activity of some state agencies in this area that is likely not included in the traditional list of workforce development programs.

Three examples illustrate the variety and specialization of these programs. The Department of Corrections has numerous training and education programs in which inmates acquire skills and earn official certificates they can use to obtain jobs when they are released. The following areas are just a sample of the programs available: plumbing, electrical, operating high-tech farm machinery, and commercial vehicle operation. Another agency, the Department of Veterans Services, has several programs designed to help veterans make the transition into the civilian workforce. Perhaps the workforce program with the highest profile is the Tech Talent Initiative. This program is the Commonwealth’s commitment to Amazon, as part of the deal to locate the company’s second headquarters in Virginia, to increase the number of computer science-related degrees awarded in 2039 by at least 25,000 more than were awarded in 2018.

This is not new ground that the Youngkin team will be plowing. Over the years, there have been several studies of the Commonwealth’s workforce development activities and efforts to coordinate them. Almost 30 years ago, the Department of Education issued a report entitled, “Study of Preparing a Skilled Workforce for the 21st Century.” As the report pointed out, “Recommendations of the study focus on coordinating statewide workforce preparation efforts.” Ten years later, in 2003, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) issued its first report on workforce development programs. Included in its recommendations was “consolidating workforce training programs under a new State Agency.” (By the way, Governor Youngkin has indicated this is his ultimate goal.) Following up on the JLARC study, the 2005 General Assembly established a joint subcommittee “to study the need for greater consolidation or coordination of the workforce development and training activities in the Commonwealth.” The recommendations in the joint subcommittee’s report were modest.

There has long been a board established by state law to advise the governor on workforce development issues.  In the first part of this century, it was the Virginia Workforce Council. Two examples of its annual report are here and here. In 2014, the General Assembly enacted legislation that abolished the Workforce Council and, in its stead, established the position of Chief Workforce Development Advisor and the Virginia Board of Workforce Development. The legislation defined the purpose of the Board as follows:

The purpose of the Board shall be to assist and advise the Governor, the General Assembly, and the Chief Workforce Development Advisor in meeting workforce training needs in the Commonwealth through recommendation of policies and strategies to increase coordination and thus efficiencies of operation between all education and workforce programs with responsibilities and resources for occupational training.

JLARC released its second report on workforce development late in 2014. It adopted a different position from its earlier report in 2003. It noted that the “decentralized nature of major workforce development programs underscores the importance of coordination.” Among its several principal findings was the “Board of Workforce Development is not equipped to establish a system of workforce development programs.” However, rather than recommending the consolidation of all state workforce development programs under a single state agency, JLARC recommended providing the Board of Workforce Development more authority and resources, including a full-time director, staff, and a budget, to enable it to implement its oversight and coordinating role. One example of the authority the Board should have would be “responsibility for creating the workforce policies of individual state agencies.”

The Board of Workforce Development exists today. Its website is here. Rather than being strengthened as JLARC recommended, it has been weakened. Originally, it was authorized by statute to have a full-time director. That position was never funded and 2020 legislation repealed that authority. Staff support is currently provided by staff periodically “borrowed” from other agencies.

Under Governor Ralph Northam, the Chief Workforce Development Advisor was elevated to Cabinet status. Legislation enacted by the 2021 General Assembly created the position of Secretary of Labor and eliminated the position of Chief Workforce Development Advisor.

Presumably, Bryan Slater, Secretary of Labor, and George Taratsas, Workforce Development Director in the office of the Secretary of Labor, will be the ones heading up the development of the Governor’s proposal to restructure the Commonwealth’s workforce development activity.  I wish them Godspeed.