In January, the U.S. finally returned to pre-pandemic levels for total workers in the workforce. But states are still dealing with continued workforce shortages. There are over 11 million unfilled job vacancies. To alleviate some stressors on employers and workers, legislatures continue to invest in workforce development.
In reviewing enactments from across the nation, NCSL identified four key workforce development themes from the past year:
- Reforming Education and Credentialing Programs.
- Targeting industries and communities.
- Focusing on underrepresented populations.
Reforming Education and Credentialing Programs
Adults without any kind of postsecondary degree or credential make significantly less money and are unemployed at much higher rates than their certified counterparts. To better their workforces and provide additional economic opportunities to those who need it most, many states have put a focus on expanding postsecondary options for adult learners. These opportunities range from promoting career and technical education to expanding nondegree credentialing options.
Scholarships are one incentive states can use to promote educational attainment and credentialing. The South Carolina Legislature, for example, passed House Bill 3144 in 2022, creating the state Workforce Industry Needs Scholarship, which provides up to $5,000 annually for residents pursuing a diploma or certificate program at a technical college.
Other states, including Colorado, have seen increasing disparities between those with postsecondary education and those without. To address this education and wealth gap, the Colorado Legislature passed Senate Bill 192, which focuses on opportunities for credential attainment. The bill requires the state Department of Higher Education to develop and implement a process for institutions to organize so-called stackable credentials, which build on each other toward degrees. The hope is that these credentials lead to careers in high-demand industries. Finally, the legislation required the department to evaluate the quality of current nondegree credentials and identify opportunities for alignment between educational pathways and work-based learning.
Hawaii lawmakers passed House Bill 1561, establishing a workforce readiness program with opportunities for students to earn associate degrees, workforce development diplomas and industry-recognized certificates.
As in previous years, lawmakers continue to focus on apprenticeships. Four-year degrees remain costly, and apprenticeships tend to address some of the most in-demand occupations. Some states are even using apprenticeships to fill gaps in their public workforces. A couple bill examples are Virginia’s Senate Bill 661 and House Bill 718, which together direct the state Board of Workforce Development to prepare recommendations for a new apprenticeships office.
Washington Senate Bill 5600 creates a committee of state agency human resources managers tasked with developing public sector apprenticeship programs.
Finally, New Jersey Senate Bill 525 establishes a school-to-apprenticeship program designed to encourage completion of high school while pairing education with lucrative careers.
Targeting Industries and Communities
As workforce shortages continue across the country, some vital industries are routinely understaffed, especially in rural communities. In response, lawmakers nationwide have passed legislation promoting careers in child care, health care and other key industries.
Oklahoma House Bill 4085, known as the Oklahoma Rural Jobs Act, provides greater access to capital for small businesses through rural investment funds. Recipients must keep track of the number of jobs created and retained as a result of these investments.
The child care industry has notably high workforce shortages and turnover rates. Some of this is due to low wages and a lack of benefits compared with other jobs. To combat these issues, Delaware House Bill 377 requires the state Department of Education to conduct an annual workforce study of early childhood professionals. The study is designed to inform an early childhood workforce development plan, also required by this legislation.
The last three years have taken their toll on the health care workforce. From dealing with the coronavirus pandemic to coping with current workforce shortages, health workers have been through numerous changes recently. In response, Utah lawmakers passed House Bill 176, which creates the state Health Workforce Advisory Council. The council provides information and recommendations to government entities regarding policy decisions that affect the state health workforce. The council is made up of health workers and educators. The council also will work with the new Utah Health Workforce Information Center to study various health workforce topics, including worker shortages, recruitment and retention.
Focusing on Underrepresented Populations
One way states can help reduce workforce shortages is to promote increased opportunities for populations with historically low participation rates.
One of these communities is the formerly incarcerated. Having a criminal record can reduce opportunities for employment, and many of the formerly incarcerated drop out of the workforce. To help with reentry, Connecticut passed Senate Bill 101, which requires the state’s chief workforce officer to develop a plan to expand programming for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons reentering society. Taking a different approach, Mississippi House Bill 920 creates the Inmate Incentive to Work Program Fund, which pays inmates to work. These jobs can teach inmates skills that will provide opportunities post-incarceration.
Lawmakers also are promoting opportunities for people with disabilities, who have lower workforce participation rates in part because of their need for more accommodations and oversight than individuals without disabilities. Kentucky Senate Bill 104 creates the Employment First Council, which is tasked with identifying disincentives for the employment of people with disabilities and developing training resources for families, self-advocates, public and private providers, and employers. New York Assembly Bill 8915 establishes a voluntary program promoting techniques and strategies employers can use to increase diversity by hiring of individuals with disabilities.