Capitol Hill

Opinion: Workforce development is a perfect opportunity for Congress to come together this year

IBM: Modernizing workforce development programs can benefit low-income and adult learners at different stages in their lives

If there is a bright spot of bipartisan hope for Congressional action, it’s in support of the American workforce. In early December, the U.S. House of Representatives – a body once paralyzed for weeks by fierce partisanship – introduced two pieces of bipartisan legislation which would free up more federal funds and remove red tape for more Americans to obtain in-demand skills needed to enter the workforce and advance in their careers.

This past year, the rapid acceleration and adoption of artificial intelligence has shined a spotlight on the need for people to be prepared to work alongside technology. And for many, the most accessible way to obtain new skills is through quality short-term programs, including online learning.

Adoption of flexible learning and working models are seemingly at an all-time high – thanks in part to the rise of remote work and online learning during COVID – yet Americans have difficulty accessing federal resources for short-term training and quality online programs. Fortunately, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce advanced two different pieces of legislation – both with strong bipartisan support – to remedy this problem and make learning more affordable and accessible for Americans who need it most.

The Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act would allow low-income students and learners to access federal funds, including for quality short-term and online learning courses. A Stronger Workforce for America Act would modernize our public workforce system and dedicate more funding toward quality programs for in-demand skills to help more Americans enter the workforce and continue advancing in their careers. Together, these pieces of legislation represent an urgent and viable opportunity for Congress to seize this session.

Employers such as IBM know that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. We recognize that a college degree is not the only credential that signifies workforce readiness and competency. It’s critical for Congress to support multiple pathways to obtaining skills that help make learning and workforce development affordable and accessible regardless of a person’s place, pace, or path. Which is why IBM recently announced a commitment to skill two million people in AI by the end of 2026, with a focus on underrepresented communities through IBM SkillsBuild.

Currently, millions of working adults and students who enroll in short-term programs to upgrade their skills and compete in today’s job market must predominantly pay out of pocket. This, of course, creates barriers for many and excludes low-income Americans from some of the fastest growing and most in-demand careers in technology.

Having time and being able to control one’s schedule is a privilege most working adults don’t have. Limiting federal funding to programs that tie students to being at a physical location at a preordained times excludes many and ignores the realities of today’s adult learners.

Outdated barriers like this exist throughout America’s workforce and education programs, further separating the needs of workers from the demands of learning institutions. Instead, these two pillars should be working together to fill in-demand positions more quickly in critical sectors such as AI and cybersecurity.

The IBM Policy Lab’s Technology Workforce Playbook for the U.S. outlined several policy recommendations for Congress to approach these challenges holistically for students, professionals, and those in between looking to make a career change – and we are thrilled many of our recommendations were incorporated into these bipartisan bills.

As we usher in the new year and members of Congress return to Washington from their districts, we’re welcoming advancement of these two smart, bipartisan bills. As such, IBM urges the House to keep the momentum going and swiftly pass the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act and A Stronger Workforce for America Act and send to the Senate for immediate consideration.  

It’s time for Congress to modernize workforce development programs and recognize the importance of flexibility for low-income and adult learners at different stages in their lives.

Justina Nixon-Saintil is IBM’s Chief Impact Officer and Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility.