The vote on the workforce development bill. Screenshot.
The vote on the workforce development bill. Screenshot.

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RICHMOND – A Senate panel on Wednesday backed a bipartisan proposal seeking to create a centralized Department of Workforce Development and Advancement that would consolidate services spread across six cabinet secretaries, 12 state agencies and 35 different programs and subprograms that are currently operating independently.

State Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County. Courtesy of Ruff.

Under Senate Bill 1470, sponsored by Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County, and Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, this new state agency would serve as the sole administrator for all of Virginia’s workforce development programs. It would further consolidate statewide workforce program evaluation and data sharing, providing protections against improper disclosure of data. 

Secretary of Labor Bryan Slater told the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology that in order to compete with other states and to attract businesses, the commonwealth needs to change how to administer, deliver and measure workforce development services.

“We are proposing the creation of a workforce agency by moving about a dozen key workforce agencies under this new agency and empowering it to create a comprehensive strategy for all workforce development programs across state government,” Slater said. “This is a bipartisan effort, built upon the efforts of numerous previous administrations from both parties.”

Bryan Slater. Official portrait.
Bryan Slater. Official portrait.

The idea of workforce development consolidation itself isn’t new – it has been floated and attempted for more than three decades by previous administrations, from Gov. Doug Wilder to Ralph Northam, and it has been recommended twice by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) in 2002 and in 2015.

Jim Dyke, the Secretary of Education in Wilder’s administration from 1990 to 1994, told the committee that during his tenure, there were only two secretaries and 19 programs impacted.

“We thought this was a great idea in order to consolidate, eliminate silos and to have the fragmentation in our job training programs eliminated, it was a great way of building a pipeline for future workers,” Dyke said. “This bill is needed now, now is the time for us to act on it. It is built on the efforts of past administrations, Republicans and Democrats, who realized that we needed an effective and efficient system to prepare our workers for the future.”

And Bill Leighty, who from 2002 until 2007 served as chief of staff to Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, said that he was in the room with Warner when representatives of the British carmaker and aero-engine manufacturer Rolls Royce expressed their “great misgivings about Virginia’s ability with its current workforce system” to deliver a workforce for them. 

“Governor Warner gave me the assurances that we would, and we spent two years trying to fix and consolidate the workforce programs. We were not that successful,” Leighty said.

Five years later, during his tenure with Kaine, the National Governors Association completed a 50-state report on how to structure workforce programs, Leighty said. “It concluded that there was no one silver bullet at that time in any state that could be looked at, but there were lots of individual programs,” he said.

Leighty said that during his total of 40 years of government service, he was unable to help fix the problem. “I am here today because this might be my last chance to make a meaningful impact,” he told the panel.

The 2015 JLARC study found that Virginia’s workforce development programs do not meet the expectations of many employers with respect to producing the workforce they need and providing services they value. 

“Employers report difficulty filling job openings, including finding applicants who possess relevant work experience and job-specific skills as well as the basic skills needed to succeed in the workplace,” the study found. 

It also stated that many of the surveyed employers expressed frustration with navigating the state’s workforce development programs, which they described as “complex and disjointed.” And while several programs are being offered to students and job seekers to gain work experience, they are underutilized and, in some cases, have not been effectively marketed.

“Although workforce development programs have increased efforts to engage employers through surveys, meetings, and conferences, these efforts are largely ad hoc and inconsistent across the state,” the study found.

Slater said Wednesday that having a centralized hub driving workforce development across state government is key, because it would enable officials to centralize all workforce data and create a centralized single website for all workforce programs, as opposed to the 40 different websites that exist for this purpose today.

“Creating a single point of management and accountability for both the legislative and executive branches allows to train the top in-demand jobs by region, measure what we are doing and how successful it is that we are doing,” Slater said, adding that a centralized hub would establish metrics that track actual jobs filled, jobs retained and wages paid, “to determine that family supporting and sustaining wages are being attained” as opposed to just measuring the number of people trained. 

“We’ll be able to scale up programs that aren’t working and identify programs that are,” he said.

But Ruff and Barker’s proposal still faced some pushback from skeptics Wednesday for not allowing potential stakeholders enough time to weigh in. 

“We’ve had very little runway to take this plane off, and the fact of the matter is there are still some things to discuss,” Jason Parker, president of the Virginia State Building & Construction Trades Council, told the committee. “It’s a shame that we don’t have more time to make sure we get it right, and that all the stakeholders have everything they need out of it.”

Slater, however, said that the bill not only requires both interim and final reports on the consolidation, but it also requires that stakeholder groups be established to weigh the impact on agencies, businesses, organized labor and other appropriate groups. “And we really want this input from them to make sure that we do this transition right,” he said.

The proposal, Slater said, focuses on optimization, standardization and consolidation to “benefit hard working Virginians who need better high paying jobs and businesses who are in dire need of workers, and it empowers us with the tools to more effectively and efficiently meet the needs that Virginia workers and businesses have.”

The change, Slater said, is long overdue. “This is not a Democrat or Republican bill, it’s a bipartisan good-government bill,” he said.

The committee by a 11-0 voted to report the bill, with four abstentions. The measure is next headed to the Senate Finance committee for consideration.

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at or 804-822-1594.