The U.S. House and Senate both passed a bill that improves workforce system development

Statewide, employment numbers point to an ongoing recovery.

Unemployment rates have been dropping in counties throughout Oregon and industries are experiencing job growth.

Nevertheless, not everything in the world of workforce development is perfect and new federal legislation seeks to fix issues brought to light by job seekers.

The House and Senate both recently passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. The legislation seeks to reform the nation’s workforce development system.

“Employers, workers, and job training advocates in Oregon ... have told me that the current workforce development system is a confusing maze of programs,” said Rep. Greg Walden. “It’s outdated, inefficient, and not accountable to the taxpayers.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley praised passage of the bill in the Senate. He noted that 15 years ago, the iPod hadn’t yet been invented and Americans were connecting to the internet on dial-up modems.

“Our economy and the skills employers are looking for have changed tremendously,” he said, “and workforce programs must keep up.”

Walden said the bill eliminates 15 duplicative programs, and empowers local boards to tailor services to their region’s employment and workforce needs.

Damon Runberg, Central Oregon’s regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department. did not dispute that changes were needed to the system.

“In particular, there are so many partners in this system,” he said, noting that different nonprofits, and state and local agencies have worked toward their own agendas.

“The coordination has been less than perfect,” he continued, “but we are working indirectly toward the same goal.”

Specific to Central Oregon, the region has lacked a local workforce investment board. Runberg said it has so far been a large consortium of counties including every one east of the Cascades and some along the coast.

“It was a really confusing system,” he said.

However, Oregon workforce development leaders heard the complaints from job seekers and they took action prior to passage of the new federal legislation.

“The State of Oregon as a whole has already kind of started this process of redesigning the workforce system,” Runberg said, “trying to make it more efficient.”

One plan includes bringing all of the workforce partners under the same roof, so they can pool their resources rather than just pursue their own separate interests.

“As far as Central Oregon, I would say we are ahead of the curve in some ways,” Runberg remarked. “There are a lot of really strong partnerships that just kind of happened independently here.”

In addition, the redesign will change the parameters of Central Oregon’s workforce investment board, making its region much smaller than before.

“That is really great for us because one of the issues at the statewide level is it was hard to have a local voice for what some of the workforce issues really were here, and the education needs that we had that were specific to companies and the industries here.”

While work began prior to the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Runberg does not believe the bill will trump or negate any of the work the State has put in thus far.

“It can only be a benefit, not a hindrance,” he said.

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