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What works in workforce development—and how can it work better?

By Brent Orwell, Greg Wright, Harry Holzer, Rachel Lipson, and David Deming and published by

For the past two years, a bipartisan group of researchers and analysts convened by the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Project on Workforce has reviewed the evidence on the effectiveness of the United States’ federal-state workforce education and training system. Our group—the Workforce Futures Initiative (WFI)—has reached some surprising and hopefully useful conclusions about how our nation can improve its investments in job training.

The good news is that federal spending on workforce development—including the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) system—improves disadvantaged worker outcomes. The bad news is that improvements are quite modest. In the words of one of our group members, we appear to be “stuck in a low-resource, low-efficacy” equilibrium. Small benefits at low levels of funding discourage higher levels of investment; yet without additional funding, it is unlikely we’ll see substantial improvement. At the same time, students and workers lack other options to finance training—for instance, Pell grants do not cover noncredit or shorter-term training efforts. The WIOA system, and the workers who use it, are caught in a policy catch-22.

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