JITE v34n3 - Vocational-Technical Education's Role in Welfare Reform: Providing Employability Skills for Welfare Recipients

Volume 34, Number 3
Spring 1997

Vocational-Technical Education's Role in Welfare Reform: Providing Employability Skills for Welfare Recipients

Dr. Ahmad Zargari
Morehead State University

Welfare reform has emerged as one of the most pressing socio-political issues of national concern. Vocational-technology educators must be willing to assist welfare recipients to gain employability skills. This manuscript will examine the skill needs of welfare recipients and discuss ways of providing employability skills for unemployed or underemployed individuals.

Legislative History

Americans generally agree that the social welfare system must be changed to reward work, encourage personal responsibility, and foster economic independency. Given the modest success of past attempts, much concern exists about the potential effectiveness of welfare reform in the future. A historical analysis of previous welfare issues is a necessary context for focusing on ways of improving the social welfare system.

During the great depression, when nearly 25% of Americans were out of work, Congress passed the Social Security Act of 1935 to help a group of single mothers (primarily widows) stay out of the workforce and take care of their children. The goal was to reduce child poverty without discouraging work. Work-directed mandates have remained the focus of welfare reform for the past 30 years (Gueron, 1995). In order to encourage and assist abled individuals to participate in the workforce, the federal government has, since the early 1960s, subsidized appropriations for employment and training of disadvantaged persons. These programs went into effect with the enactment of the Area Redevelopment Act (ARA) of 1961. ARA established a precedent for federally subsidized training offered in conjunction with loans to companies that agreed to relocate or expand industrial facilities into impoverished areas. The Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1963 became the cornerstone of President Johnson's War on Poverty. The Work Incentive (WIN) program was added as an amendment to the Social Security Act to provide training and job placement services to recipients of Aid to Families of Dependent Children (AFDC).

With the passage of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) of 1973, major steps were taken toward decentralization of the delivery system. About 500 prime sponsors, each representing communities with a population of at least 100,000, were assigned the responsibility of planning and implementing policy in order to develop programs tailored to community needs. The Youth Employment and Demonstration Project Act (YEDPA) of 1977 allowed the Carter administration to create and oversee several new programs for youth employment activities. These programs offered tax credits to employers who expanded their workforce by hiring disadvantaged and other groups with special needs (Carnevale, Gainer, & Villet, 1990).

Although annual appropriations for training and employment programs increased from approximately $81 million in 1963 to $11 billion in fiscal year 1979 (Ginzberg, 1980), it was clear that these programs had failed to help emancipate welfare recipients from public dependency. In fact, because CETA failed to provide young people with the skills they needed for the workforce, it was abolished when President Reagan took office.

As the reform process continued, in 1988 the Job Opportunities and Basic Training program (JOBS) was established to change the culture of welfare from dependency to self-sufficiency (Barnhart, 1992). Funding for the JOBS programs was provided under a capped entitlement, with federal dollars limited to $500 million in fiscal year 1989, $650 million in 1990, $800 million in 1991, $1 billion in 1992, $1 billion in 1993, $1.1 billion in 1994, and $1.3 billion in 1995 (Katz, 1993). Based on a consensus that employment was a principal antidote to welfare dependency, states were required to offer a wide range of work-related activities, including training, educational programs, community work experience programs (CWEP), and job searches.

The main focus of JOBS was to place emphasis on the importance of work and provide employment opportunities for individuals in the welfare system. The JOBS programs attempted to restructure the welfare systems to (a) reflect a commitment to self-sufficiency, (b) adequately invest in a useful and relevant education, and (c) facilitate the participation of all abled recipients in the education and training programs.

The most recent round of reform occurred in 1996, when Congress passed, and the President signed, the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996." Due to widespread agreement that the U.S. welfare system has failed to accomplish its primary objectives of reducing poverty, encouraging work, and eliminating social dependency, this recent Act radically transformed the nation's welfare system. Based on this, individual states will be more responsible to people's needs, and a federal guarantee of benefits to any eligible poor person will end.

The Need for Reform

When the AFDC was created to support widows or the wives of disabled workers, a large number of people were unemployed, very few middle class women were working, and women were encouraged to remain in the home. The conditions have changed dramatically. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that, by the year 2005, the U.S. economy will create 17.7 million new jobs (Hudelson, 1996). Women have entered the workplace in huge numbers, and most mothers on welfare are unmarried, not widows. According to Gueron (1995), "Providing long-term support has become much less popular" (p. 6). Yet, today 14 million individuals, most of them single mothers and children, receive a monthly welfare check as well as food stamps and medical care, costing the U.S. government a total of $38 billion annually.

Although the central mission of the U.S. social welfare system was to enable the welfare recipients to become self-sufficient, it has created a culture of dependance on public assistance that appears to be permanent and intergenerational. The welfare delivery system is in need of fundamental reform because, in more than 60 years, its various programs have grown too expensive both socially and economically. Even though the welfare system has continuously placed a great deal of emphasis on ways of providing recipients (mostly unemployed) with employment opportunities, its various programs currently invest $350 billion annually to support many of the nation's 36 million poor. Obviously there is a need for reform. Why has the system failed to serve its primary purpose of enabling recipients to enjoy the satisfaction of performing an occupation, and gain economic independency? Can the system be repaired?

Senge (1990) noted that "An underlying problem generates symptoms that demand attention. But, the underlying problem is difficult to address either because it is obscure or costly to confront. So people shift the burden of their problem to others" (p. 104). The U.S. welfare system has been confronted with an underlying socio-economical problem caused by unemployment with poverty as its symptom. Existing welfare programs have evolved to address symptoms rather than the fundamental cause, unemployment. Based on socio-political considerations, politicians may shift the burden by expanding, reducing, or placing restrictions on how or when an individual could receive public assistance. In the short-term, this appeals to taxpayers because of potential cost savings. However, since getting welfare recipients to work is the only way to transform the welfare state (Katz, 1995), the problem will resurface in the long term unless its fundamental cause, unemployment, is resolved.

Skills Requirements

The effects of technology touch all aspects of modern life. The workplace is being particularly impacted by technological advancements and competition from abroad. Workforce qualification requirements are constantly changing. The danger for the present and future is not lack of jobs, but lack of technological skills. By the end of this century, there may be a critical shortage of workers with the education and training necessary to handle the jobs that need to be filled (Bracy, 1996). The nature of work has changed dramatically, requiring a workforce that is highly skilled and adaptive. Low-skill jobs are gradually being replaced by jobs requiring more language, mathematics, technological literacy, and problem-solving skills. If this trend continues, many workers will lack the required skills to perform more demanding jobs (U.S. Department of Labor, 1994; U.S. Department of Labor, 1989).

A 1989 American Management Association (AMA) survey of more than 1,000 human resources managers warned that 22% of the job applicants tested were deficient in basic reading and math skills. In most cases, these deficiencies prevented them from being hired (Greenberg, 1989). A recently released survey conducted by the AMA revealed that one in three job applicants tested in 1995 by major companies lacked sufficient reading and/or math skills to perform the jobs they sought. The survey found a 33.1% deficiency rate among applicants (Greenberg, 1996).

According to Greenberg (1989), "There are more than 27 million functional illiterates in the nation. Additional millions with elementary reading skills are unable to learn job skills from manuals or instructional materials" (p. 5). Surprisingly, a survey conducted by the Educational Testing Services revealed that roughly 90 million Americans over age 16 are, as far as most workplaces are concerned, basically unfit for employment (Gray & Simpson, 1993).

The work of the future will increasingly depend upon the ability of workers to receive, understand, and make informed decisions based on information and instructions. In the growing industries, more jobs will require high levels of reading, greater facility with numbers, and increased technological literacy. In the past, despite their illiteracy, individuals could make a living working in manufacturing or other jobs that did not require basic skills. In recent years, many of these jobs have disappeared. Because an increasing number of jobs today are interdependent, employers seek workers who display a blend of technical and human relations skills.

In today's changing workplace, one of the most valuable lessons an employee can learn is the importance of continuously developing skills beyond those required for the performance of a specific job. Some competencies, identified as "employability skills," are the key to job survival because they enable individuals to prove their value to an organization. These competencies include technological literacy, knowing how to learn, mathematics, computer literacy, and the skills of communication, organization, problem-solving, sensitivity, judgment, adaptability, personal management, team work, and leadership. Other job survival necessities are a good work ethic, evidence of maturity, a sense of dependability, and an ability to concentrate and stay on task (Cobble, 1996; Poole and Zahn, 1993; Welter, 1989).

Unless the appropriate education and training are provided to upgrade the skills of unemployed persons, breaking the cycle of welfare dependency will be impossible. To effectively solve the unemployment problems faced by welfare recipients, the emphasis should be placed on developing employability skills, the skills required for maintaining employment in the 21st century's economic enterprise system. In order to emancipate recipients from welfare dependency, there must be a commitment and willingness to invest in the education and training necessary to develop the skills needed for employment. Welfare reform should focus on providing education, work-based training, and employability skills for welfare recipients.

Job-Based Education

The main reason for swelling the AFDC's payrolls to 14 million in the last 25 years is that individuals who have not been able to meet the requirements of the labor market have been forced to leave the workplace and depend upon public assistance. Therefore, the development of employability skills is vital to the success of social welfare programs. The need for greater investment in developing employability skills is pushing education and training issues to the forefront of the welfare reform debate. Education and training provide employment opportunities for welfare recipients as well as a sense of satisfaction as they enter the world of work and become productive citizens. For industry, education and training are synonymous with quality, productivity, and economic growth. For the U.S. social welfare system, education specifically designed to develop required skills is paramount to solving the chronic socioeconomic problems of welfare dependency.

Kantor (1994) noted that "… shifts in the occupational structure have increased the skill requirements of jobs and require reform in the educational system in order to overcome a critical skills shortage among American workers" (p. 450). Such reform should focus on the development of an integrated instructional program that applies academic skills in the context of an occupationalarea. This presents significant opportunities and challenges for vocational-technical education.

A renewed national emphasis on facilitating the transition from school to work and from welfare to work has provided a historic opportunity for vocational-technical programs to bring about the kind of change that is needed to help people enter the ranks of gainfully employed citizens of this nation (Serratt, 1995). Vocational-technical education programs must restructure their curricula and delivery process at all levels in order to provide employability skills by integration of basic academic skills and vocational competencies. Pratzner (1993) observed that, "[Vocational] Programs must know what is required in today's and tomorrow's workplace and must set high expectations for achievement for all students" (p. 4.

To meet the demand for employability skills, vocational education programs should focus on reforming their curricula and instructional strategies for relevance and appropriateness. Particular emphasis should be placed onserving those sectors of society that have a tendency to access welfare rather than move into training programs. To accomplish this, vocational-technical education programs must center on providing students with employability skills in order to successfully perform in the world of work. In order to provide employability skills for the recipients of public assistance, the social welfare system must collaborate closely with vocational-technical education programs at all levels.


Welfare reform programs must collaborate with vocational-technical institutions in order to improve the recipients' basic academic skills within the context of an occupational area. This represents both an opportunity and a challenge for vocational-technical educators. The opportunity is that vocational-technical programs could play a significant role in the welfare reform process. The challenge is for all vocational-technical educators to systematically update their curricula, upgrade their skills, and improve their methods of instruction in order to meet the needs of welfare recipients for basic academic and occupational skills.

Clearly, the success of any reform initiative in helping welfare recipients to become self-sufficient depends, to a great extent, on how well individuals are empowered, not only to perform an occupation, but also to take control of their jobs. This will not be accomplished unless the system is willing to invest in the education and training that is needed to provide the unemployed or underemployed persons the skills they need to become employable.

Based on the preceding considerations, it is recommended that public and private funds be invested to provide open access to vocational-technical education programs. Vocational-technical schools, if equipped with state-of-the-art technical means, flexible programs, and experienced faculty, could provide a lasting solution to welfare problems by enabling the recipients of public assistance to develop employability skills.

Reform initiatives must focus on providing welfare recipients with opportunities to improve everything from basic academic skills to self-confidence to employment prospects. To accomplish this, the U.S. social welfare system should seek closer collaboration with vocational-technical schools in order to provide employability skills for unemployed persons. Vocational-technical programs have great potential for assisting welfare recipients to enter the workforce and enjoy the emancipation from public dependency.


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Reference Citation: Zargari, A. (1997). Vocational-technical education's role in welfare reform: Providing employability skills for welfare recipients. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 34(3), 86-94.
Tracy Gilmore