Commentary: Plan to develop workforce in Delaware needs more effort


Of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) signed by President Joe Biden on March 11, Delaware received $925 million to invest in one-time projects. One of the state’s three largest initiatives is a $50 million investment in workforce development with a focus on job training.

While investing in job training seems like a noble and smart move, it leaves many questions unanswered. The primary issue with Delaware’s workforce-development plan is that there is no information about how the money will be spent. Gov. John Carney stated of the allocations that “we’re focused on investments that will build on the strengths of Delaware’s world-class workforce and support Delaware families and businesses who were most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. These workforce development programs will help Delawareans develop the skills they need to succeed in a 21st century economy.”

The goals Carney provides of “building on strengths” and “developing skills” are ones that cannot be measured, and we don’t know what time frame it should be measured over, as neither program has a specified end date.

The job-training program will be broken into two primary components — the expansion of the Pathways Program and Forward Delaware. The Pathways Program focuses exclusively on students and is receiving one-third of this allotment — an investment in Delaware’s future that does not help the approximately 26,000 unemployed adults who are struggling to pay their bills right now.

Pathways began in 2015 and serves about 20,000 high school students. With this funding, it will grow to assist 32,000 middle through high school students. An additional $8.3 million will be added to the program through the state budget.

Forward Delaware was founded in August 2020 and is managed by the Delaware Prosperity Partnership. It provides 20-week certification courses (directed toward those who became unemployed due to the pandemic) in the fields of health care, construction/trades, hospitality/food service, logistics/ transportation and computers/IT. In its first year, about 3,000 Delawareans took advantage of its offerings, but only 1,476 — less than 50% — completed a training course. The initial investment in the program was more than $15 million. The certifications that can be acquired through Forward Delaware will make workers eligible for higher-paying, more specialized professions, but it’s a large investment few individuals have used, and the Prosperity Partnership openly admits it has not tracked hiring details and simply reports that “the fact that Forward Delaware exists is a good thing.”

A lack of alignment between workforce development and the training itself is one of the five major pitfalls of workforce-development success — and the above statement proves it’s at least one of the reasons this initiative in Delaware is likely to fail.

A Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act analysis has evaluated Delaware’s workforce-development programs and noted that one of its top weaknesses is providing skills and training for professions that may not lead to self-sufficiency.

According to the Education Commission of the States, Delaware does not have a policy or process in place to identify high-demand occupations. Without any data to support which industries need skilled workers, Forward Delaware may be missing out on training workers for areas employers need the most — and those that may produce the best outcomes for trainees.

Several other states have dedicated workforce-training programs that put Delaware to shame. South Carolina’s Department of Employment and Workforce utilizes several different programs that give individuals the choice to find a specific program that works well for them. With so many different options, there are ample opportunities to get individuals back into the labor force once they have been properly trained. On the other side of the spectrum, there is Georgia Quick Start. This company has a single program that can provide customized job training, which makes it easier to implement on a statewide level. The program receives 44% of its funding from the state and has managed to create over 1 million jobs since its founding in 1967.

More recently, Delaware ranked seventh out of eight states in the South Atlantic region in the 2021 Regional Workforce Development Rankings — showing it’s one of the worst at providing a strong workforce-development ecosystem. With a new, questionable job-training program, it doesn’t seem like Delaware’s on track to move up the ladder.

Delaware must move from a patchwork of semi-connected programs and services to building out the components of an integrated ecosystem, which includes statistical evidence to support investments in its workforce and analysis of workforce-training effectiveness and outcomes.

Only then will Delaware improve its standing in business competitiveness and economic growth.

Kathleen Rutherford is executive director of A Better Delaware, a nonpartisan public policy and political advocacy organization that supports pro-growth, pro-jobs policies and greater transparency and accountability in state government.

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