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Help wanted: Congress should answer the call

Ambassador Gary Locke
 

It’s been a hot spring in Washington — not the weather, but the job market. Our employers are having difficulty filling jobs in key industries — health care, manufacturing, information technology, to name a few.

And that affects all of us. It means longer wait times to see a health-care professional, delays in receiving key pieces of equipment, wait lists for construction projects and increased risks to computer networks.

People want and deserve stable, rewarding jobs with opportunities for higher pay and upward mobility. Too often, though, they don’t have the skills needed for these in-demand jobs or the time to pursue a degree.

How do we solve the disconnect between the needs of employers and the desire of people seeking better careers?

The answer is short-term training. These programs, which can be as little as eight weeks and lead to certificates instead of degrees, teach people what they need to enter the job market or move up in their careers.

And there’s demand for such short-term training. 68% of adults responding to a 2020 Strada Education Network survey reported they were considering enrolling in nondegree training programs. Likewise, employers are increasingly looking at different ways to certify and verify specific job skills.

For many Washingtonians, though, these certificate programs are cost prohibitive because federal financial aid doesn’t cover many short-term programs, leaving behind many who could otherwise become qualified for rewarding jobs or promotions. Pell Grants — federal financial aid for students with the greatest need — are now limited to programs that last at least 15 weeks.

Congress can, and should, act quickly to make workers seeking short-term certificates eligible for financial aid. Right now, negotiators in the U.S. House and Senate are working to iron out their differences on a proposal to make the country more competitive in the world economy.

Already passed by the House, the America COMPETES Act includes a bipartisan amendment that would allow eligible low- and moderate-income workers to use federal need-based financial aid to enroll in short-term training programs that are at least eight weeks long.

Congress should waste no time approving the proposal. While the difference between eight-week and 15-week training programs — seven weeks — might not sound significant, being eligible for financial aid could make all the difference in the world for working adults who are struggling to make ends meet as they juggle jobs and family responsibilities.

Taxpayers have a right to expect that these short-term training programs will lead to positive outcomes if their students are eligible for financial aid. Thus the proposal includes important safeguards to ensure the certificates are relevant to today’s labor market. To become Pell-eligible, the training program must demonstrate that it is for high-wage, high-skill or high-demand jobs, and that graduates will achieve wage increases of at least 20% six months after completing the program.

The proposal would also require colleges to design certificate programs to build upon each other, like building blocks, that lead to higher levels of expertise and degrees. With the help of federal financial aid, working adults could learn a set of skills to help get jobs, pay raises or promotions right away, while setting the stage for even more training later when the time is right for them.

Employers, too, would benefit from an upskilled workforce fueled by a wider range of short-term programs. Workers and employers alike depend on training opportunities to thrive.

Community and technical colleges would be able to offer a broader range of specialized programs because more people could actually fill the courses now that they are eligible for financial aid. Enrollment would not be limited to people who could afford to pay out-of-pocket.

Take commercial drivers licensing — CDL drivers in Washington state make an average annual salary of $57,230, significantly higher than the national average. Community and technical colleges offer CDL programs ranging in length from six weeks to 20 weeks at a cost of $3,500-$7,500, not an inexpensive undertaking. But the programs under 15 weeks don’t qualify for financial aid. Passing the America COMPETES Act amendment would change that, removing the cost barrier for many lower-income students.

Bellevue College and our 33 fellow community and technical colleges in Washington already know how to design certificate programs with value in the labor market. At Bellevue, students can earn both short-and longer-term certificates in areas like information technology, health care, education and business. The certificates have value in their own right, but they also serve as a springboard to higher levels of training.

These days, it seems everybody is trying to hire somebody while so many people are looking for work. By allowing people to use financial aid for proven short-term training programs, Congress can meet the needs of employers, workers and consumers alike and build a stronger economy in the process.

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