The COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States just as many state legislatures were midway through their 2020 legislative sessions. Although legislators were mired by urgent legislation in response to the ongoing pandemic, many states enacted both substantive and fiscal legislation relating to workforce development. The bills covered a range of topics, from establishing workforce development programs to appropriations for existing and related programs.
In reviewing enactments from across the nation, NCSL identified six key workforce development themes from the past year:
- Rural workforce development.
- Reorganization of workforce systems.
- Fostering cooperation among stakeholders.
- Industry-specific initiatives.
- Workforce development and higher education connections.
Below is an overview of each of these themes, along with examples of specific legislation.
Rural Workforce Legislation
Policies responding to the unique workforce needs of rural communities continued to trend in 2020. Lawmakers passed legislation focusing on industries that tend to exist in rural areas. In Vermont, a bill expanded the state’s existing Farm-to-Plate Investment Program by allocating more funds to workforce development activities to create sustainable jobs in Vermont’s food and farm sector. In Louisiana, lawmakers passed the Louisiana Agricultural Workforce Development Program to administer internships and provide monetary incentives for positions in the state’s agribusiness sector. The bill sets out the requirements of an internship program and requires the program to report to the legislature annually on its effectiveness.
States also responded to the needs of their rural communities with structural solutions. For example, the Colorado General Assembly passed legislation creating a rural grant program to provide state monies to eligible employers who create new jobs or add additional positions to existing workforces. Grant applications will be evaluated based on whether a proposed project would benefit a key industry in the region by encouraging capital investment, growth that benefits more than one rural community through collaboration and shows compatibility with existing economic development plans. In Oregon, lawmakers passed a bill establishing the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board to contract with third-party organizations on workforce development projects. The legislation instructs the board to focus on economic and workforce development projects in the region to attract and keep workers, including authorizing them to suggest restrictive laws be waived. The legislation also allows for third-party organizations to provide grants to local industry for workforce development purposes.
- Virginia HB 1597: Relates to the GO Virginia grants program, including aligning workforce development programs with regional needs, collaboration with local businesses and giving priority to programs which prioritize workforce development.
- Virginia HB 443: Deals with closure of coal combustion residual units in rural, coal-producing counties. Calls on the owners of the facilities to consult with the Chief of Workforce Development on fostering the Workforce Development Program goals.
Reorganization of Workforce Systems
States continued to make significant investments in their workforce systems through legislation in 2020. Since Congress’ enactment of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in 2014, each year state legislatures work to refine their workforce structures in order to meet the goals laid out for them in WIOA. The restructuring of state workforce systems continued to be one of the biggest trends in workforce development policy in the states.
Generally, WIOA gives states plenty of flexibility to take workforce actions that make the most sense in their unique contexts, but WIOA standardizes the structures and systems related to workforce development across the states. One key method of standardization includes requiring states to form WIOA-compliant state workforce boards that are diverse in representation (with stakeholders from business, government, nonprofits, schools, etc.), responsible for aligning federal investment in job training with state programs, integrating service delivery across programs and convening and connecting regional and local workforce providers.
In 2020 the Virginia General Assembly passed HB 1198, amending the state Workforce Development Board to ensure it aligns with federal laws, including establishing ways to “implement and foster” workforce development and increased communication and collaboration between programs. Indiana’s General Assembly passed similar legislation, requiring the existing Governor’s Workforce Cabinet to create a “comprehensive strategic plan to ensure alignment of the state’s education systems with workforce training programs and employer needs.” The cabinet will identify the workforce needs in Indiana to recommend goals to meet the investment needs, including goals for the talent development system in the state. It will also review and approve regional workforce development board plans and work closely with local boards to establish metrics for assessing the effectiveness of their workforce programming.
In Mississippi, lawmakers passed SB 2564 creating the Mississippi Office of Workforce Development as well as the State Workforce Investment Board. The legislation tasks the office and the board with working collaboratively with the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House on a strategic plan to integrate state workforce systems that align with the state’s economic needs. Finally, the bill also requires the office and board to work collaboratively to implement WIOA plans and further integrate Mississippi’s workforce services.
- Alaska HB 301: Changed state statute to ensure apprentices may only receive a plumber utility trainee certificate of fitness if the program they are in is officially registered with USDOL as a registered apprenticeship program.
- Executive Order: Michigan 107 2020: Creates the Michigan Workforce Development Board, makes changes to the board to ensure WIOA compliance, requires the board to actively convene stakeholders in the state’s workforce development system including local workforce boards.
State governments appropriated funds to workforce development through both general and specific means. Most state governments that made allocations directed them towards large departments, like the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, or the Treasury of the State. In these circumstances, state budgets clarified these appropriations were for both existing and new workforce development programs. Other states appropriated funds to brand new workforce development programs, rather than to departments more generally. These appropriations were tailored to states’ individual concerns, like responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and growing critical industries.
For example, Virginia HB 5001 makes both general and specific appropriations. First, it authorizes the use of federal and state funds for a host of public and workforce development programs. $2.8 million over two years will go towards acquiring vocational-technical equipment for high-growth sectors as identified by the Virginia Board of Workforce Development. It also appropriates funds to develop primary care and high-need specialties as guided by the Virginia Health Workforce Development Authority. In passing New Jersey AB 03, the New Jersey state legislature also made both general and specific appropriations. Of the approximately $48 million to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, $3.8 million went to the Displaced Homemaker Program, $17.5 million to the Vocational Rehabilitation Services, and $11 million to Supplemental Workforce Fund for Basic Skills.
- Ohio SB 166: Focused on funding school-to-workforce programs, such as easing lower spending restrictions for schools with a workforce development curriculum, calling for a federal and university partnership for workforce development research, and appropriating money to the workforce development fund.
- Minnesota HB 4602: Appropriates $3.48 million for workforce development programs.
- Mississippi SB 2935: Appropriated $6.75 million to Workforce and Economic Development Support, and appropriated funds for public community colleges and junior colleges for the 2020-21 school year.
- New Mexico HB 02: Allocated $1.7 million to renovate the workforce development and continuing technical education laboratory at the Los Alamos branch campus of the University of New Mexico.
- New York SB 7500: Appropriated $98.45 million for workforce development programs, to be jointly administered by the State Workforce Investment Board and other state agencies.
Fostering of Cooperation
While some states implemented legislation pertaining solely to workforce development, many states also enacted legislation integrating workforce development priorities into other labor or education initiatives. Many of these bills call on specific areas of state government, such as the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, to analyze current practices and determine where the state can improve or add workforce development initiatives. Several bills also focus on cooperation between K-12 and higher education and specific industries or workforce development programs. Finally, many bills prioritize workforce development in specific geographic regions or for certain groups of people, such as sexual assault victims.
One of the most ambitious bills passed in the previous session was Vermont’s HB 533. The bill set lofty goals for workforce development, including “full” integration of a workforce development program, alignment of workforce development and education goals, cooperation between workforce development and education programs, and that 70% of “working-age Vermonters” will possess a valued work-related credential by 2025. Another bill in Utah, HB 291/SB 65, focuses specifically on victims of sexual assault. The bill requires the Division of Juvenile Justice Services to collaborate with the Workforce Development Division and Department of Workforce Services on the social and economic needs of a person who is eligible for public assistance. The bill also establishes the legislative intent of Utah technical colleges to, in part, sponsor workforce development via partnerships with state-based companies.
- Louisiana HCR 75: A concurrent resolution that requests the Workforce Investment Council and Occupational Forecasting Conference to “immediately work with private sector experts” to assess short-term and long-term workforce implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on Louisiana’s workforce.
- Mississippi SB 2563: As part of the Incentives Transparency for a Prosperous Mississippi Act, creates a “Mississippi Workforce Development Study Committee.” The purpose of the study committee is to review the curriculum in K-12 schools that is designed to promote workforce development and preparation and to develop and design a curriculum to recommend to the Legislature that meets the workforce development needs of the State of Mississippi.”
- New Hampshire HB 570: Establishes a commission to study career pathways from full-time service year programs to postsecondary education and employment opportunities in support of the state's future workforce needs.
- New Jersey SB 973: Requires the commissioner of labor and workforce development to establish an apprenticeship mentoring program for women, minorities and persons with disabilities.
States that passed industry-specific laws focused mainly on the energy and healthcare sectors. States that focused on energy made large investments in renewable energy, including water and wind. In addition to mandating workforce development programs in these industries, state governments allocated or created new funds for this training. For example, in Illinois, SB 2146 established the Clean Water Workforce Pipeline Program. This law aims to create a certain number of jobs in state-financed water infrastructure projects and to train employees for those jobs. It also establishes the Water Workforce Development Fund as a special fund within the State Treasury for the program. In Vermont, the state legislature passed HB 607, which called for the director of health care to assess funds for workforce development and create a workforce development plan.
Some states passed bills even more tailored to their specific needs. Louisiana, in HCR 81, created a task force to explore the opportunities and effects of the cannabis industry on workforce development. The task force will make recommendations relative to the cannabis industry's projected workforce demands to the legislature by February 2021. In Virginia, HB 5001a, the legislature allocated $2.8 million over two years for acquiring vocational-technical equipment in high-growth sectors as identified by the Virginia Board of Workforce Development.
- Maryland HB 1029: Modifies the Clean Energy Workforce Account by altering the scope of apprenticeship and training programs that can receive Fund support, expanding the definition of ‘clean energy’ professions and opening apprenticeships/jobs training programs to veterans and formerly incarcerated individuals.
- New Jersey SB 2712: Establishes the Special Task Force on Direct Care Workforce Retention and Recruitment to evaluate current direct care staffing levels, retention, and recruitment in state nursing homes.
- Virginia HB 1526/SB 851: Creates a mandatory Renewable Portfolio System, the development of which must include consultation with the governor’s chief workforce development advisor.
Workforce and Higher Education Connections
In addition to bills focusing on cooperation and integration of workforce development initiatives, many bills included provisions connecting workforce development and education systems. Several bills focused on providing marginalized populations with access to meaningful education programs or sponsoring education programs for specific industries and regions. These bills incorporated a variety of education-related issues, such as apprenticeship programs and funding, educational credit for incarcerated populations and sponsoring the development of education programs in high-demand industries.
South Carolina HB 4000 is an appropriations bill that provides extensive workforce development and education supports. The bill calls on the South Carolina Coordinating Council for Workforce Development to create a list of college majors deemed “critical workforce program areas.” The bill also requires Critical Workforce Development Initiative funds to be allocated to colleges, especially technical colleges, that prioritize workforce development needs. Finally, the bill appropriates funds for workforce development scholarships and allows workforce development initiatives to be used in substance abuse disorder services. New Hampshire HB 1245, focuses on workforce development programs for prisoners. The bill “establishes earned time credit reductions for prisoners who participate in correctional industries or other programs…” For each master’s certificate prisoners earn, they are entitled to a “one-time reduction of 60 days” to their sentences.
- Arizona SB 1528: Expands what families can spend on family college savings programs (also known as 529 savings plans) in the state to include fees, books, supplies, equipment or other expenses for apprenticeship programs.
- Indiana HB 1120: This bill sets forth new guidelines related to educational credit time for a person incarcerated in the Department of Corrections between certain dates. However, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Workforce Development can approve a program “only if the program is likely to lead to an employable occupation.”
- Washington HB 2158: A bill focused on helping Washington students gain the education and training needed for workforce participation. The bill establishes a Workforce Development Investment Account and creates “regional career connected learning networks” with the help of workforce development councils.
What will 2021 hold for workforce development legislation in the states? It is no secret that legislation addressing COVID-19 and state budgets will likely be top of mind for legislators. However, states’ continued commitment to workforce topics during the challenging 2020 legislative year shows that this area remains a top priority for many. Prior to 2020, given the low unemployment rate across the country, many state workforce policies were focused on getting more individuals into the workforce and reducing barriers to the labor market. Now, with states facing increased unemployment rates and a drop in labor market participation, states may need to refocus workforce development policies to meet this new set of challenges.