Labor Day: Skills for a lifetime

WASHINGTON – As the Secretary of Labor, I have a unique opportunity to meet with employers around the country of all sizes and from an array of industries. So many of them tell me the same thing: they’re ready to grow their businesses and to hire more people.

But here’s the rub: too often, they can’t find workers who have the skills they need.

Meanwhile, although businesses have added 9.9 million jobs since February 2010, a lot of people are still hurting, unable to access the opportunities that will allow them to share in our national recovery. About a third of those who remain unemployed have been unemployed for six months or more.

So we have ready-to-work people looking for work. And we have ready-to-fill jobs that employers can’t fill. If we want to continue our economic recovery, grow our middle class and ensure a prosperous future, we’ve got to match them up.

That’s at the heart of President Obama’s opportunity agenda. And that’s why he recently signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) – a bipartisan bill that passed with little fanfare, but represents the first major reform of the nation’s workforce system since 1998. The reforms in the new law will make the nation’s workforce system, which serves more than 20 million people a year, better able to provide people with the skills they need to access ladders of opportunity.

But that’s not all. Vice President Biden recently released a report calling for stronger partnerships with employers; better access to information for job-seekers; and more effective training strategies.

All of these efforts are based on the principle of job-driven training. We’re doing away with what I call “train and pray,” training people to be widget makers and praying that there’s a company hiring widget makers. We need to provide people with the skills needed for jobs that actually exist.

So what exactly does “job-driven training” look like? Here are some examples happening right here in Michigan. Kacent Culinary Arts Inc. in Detroit and the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians in Dowagiac are both training underserved minority apprentices in the hospitality industry and Gerdau Special Steel recently established an apprentice program for its iron and steel mill in Monroe with an emphasis on hiring Veterans. One success story that has changed the future of its apprentices is the program at the federal correctional facility in Milan, which has trained convicted felons in eight different occupations, so that they may integrate back into society with job skills.

At the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, more than 50 apprentices have been registered for on-the-job training for skills in advanced manufacturing in a revitalized auto industry.

So far these programs, along with those of the many trade unions in the state, have trained thousands of workers.

And perhaps the most important ingredient to making this program successful? The technical colleges work closely with employers to provide students with industry recognized credentials and certification, and they can earn advanced credit at local 2- and 4-year colleges.

In November 2013, Michigan received about $26.4 million in Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant program funding to support skills training in advanced manufacturing skills at community colleges and other public institutions across the state. Among the colleges receiving this funding are: Macomb Community College, Bay College, Grand Rapids Community College, Kellogg Community College, Lake Michigan College, Lansing Community College, Mott Community College, Schoolcraft College and Baker College.

On Labor Day, we honor the contributions that hard-working men and women make every day to our nation’s strength and vitality. And we recommit ourselves to helping more people enjoy the dignity of work, helping them acquire the skills and access the opportunities to reach the American Dream.

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Thomas E. Perez serves as U.S. Secretary of Labor