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By Ben Penn
Alexander Acosta said he’s committed to training America’s workforce for modern jobs, but his confirmation hearing was clouded by President Donald Trump’s recent proposals to slash training programs.
Senators from both parties questioned the labor secretary nominee on how he’d oversee a workforce training funding stream that accounts for a significant share of the Labor Department’s overall budget. The White House recently called for a 21 percent cut in DOL funding, including by transferring the costs for some job training programs to states.
Acosta emphasized that he would take an evidence-based approach to cuts that varies by geographic region, rather than back an across-the-board decrease.
“If confirmed as secretary of labor, one of the things that I want to do is go through these programs that compiled the data, because for a lot of these programs I believe the rate of return on investment in taxpayer dollars is quite significant, and would pay for itself very readily from the jobs they’ve created,” Acosta told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
But some panel members, including Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), expressed concern that a significant cut couldn’t be made up for by states. “If we don’t have the workforce pipeline necessary to staff the supply chain, those jobs will go overseas,” Murphy said, referring to his state’s training system. “It’s not about mismatched resources; it’s simply about not having enough resources.”
Acosta’s opening remarks noted the need to ensure that job applicants have the skills to meet employers’ needs.
Asked whether Acosta’s message about the benefits of skills programs is undermined by Trump’s budget request, HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told Bloomberg BNA after the hearing that lawmakers have final say on appropriations.
“The Congress will write the budget,” he said. “The president’s budget is just a suggestion, quickly made at the beginning of an administration.”
Acosta is widely expected to be confirmed. If he is, he said he’d immediately turn his attention to prioritizing DOL programs across all subagencies to see where efficiencies could be realized.
“Dollars are going to be more scarce is the reality,” Acosta said. “And so we’re going to have to make difficult decisions.”
One of Acosta’s other tasks if he’s confirmed would be to meet with key department stakeholders to ensure a smooth handoff of the implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The 2014 bill reauthorized DOL funding for thousands of state and local job training programs, and received broad bipartisan support.
One such stakeholder, Scott Sanders, executive director of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, told Bloomberg BNA that he completely agrees with Acosta that the programs must be evaluated to ensure a return on investment.
“I look forward to working with him, if he does get through the process, and helping him do that,” Sanders said. “I think he’s going to come in with a fresh pair of eyes and make sure that the taxpayers are getting the best bang for the buck.”
Maria Flynn, a senior career official at the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration from 1991 to 2007, said she’s encouraged by Acosta’s commitment to apprenticeship and training partnerships between employers, the federal government and education.
“But there’s an obvious disconnect between that and the information that was put out last week in the skinny budget,” Flynn, now president of Jobs for the Future, told Bloomberg BNA. “I’d be hopeful that if he’s confirmed, that having strong leadership in the department could maybe start to bring some examination and rationalization to the proposals.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at email@example.com
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