AS SECRETARY of Labor, I have a unique opportunity to meet with employers around the country, of all sizes and from an array of industries. Many of them tell me they’re ready to grow their businesses and hire people. But too often, they can’t find workers who have the skills they need.
Although businesses have added 9.9 million jobs since February, 2010, a lot of people are still hurting. They can’t gain access to the opportunities that will allow them to share in our national recovery. About one-third of Americans who remain unemployed have been out of work for six months or more.
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. He recently signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act — a bipartisan bill that passed with little fanfare, but represents the first major reform of the nation’s work-force system since 1998.
The reforms in the new law will make the work-force system, which serves more than 20 million people a year, better able to provide workers with the skills they need to ascend ladders of opportunity.
Vice President Joe Biden recently released a report that calls 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 make widgets, and then praying that there’s a company hiring widget makers. We need to give people the skills they need for jobs that actually exist.
I recently visited the Toledo Technology Academy, where students get an education that prepares them for careers in engineering or manufacturing. In addition to classes such as English and history, they get hands-on training in subjects such as plastics technologies, manufacturing operations, and computer-automated design. The students on the robotics team earn a varsity letter.
Perhaps the most important ingredient to making this program successful, the school works closely with employers — including the local General Motors plant — to provide students with industry-recognized credentials and certification. They can earn advanced credit at local two and four-year colleges. Last April, Toledo Public Schools was awarded a $3.8 million Youth CareerConnect grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to expand the academy’s model to serve more students.
This year, we’re putting more than $1 billion on the street in grant funding to support programs like this one. These resources are deployed in a number of ways: strengthening community colleges, promoting apprenticeship and on-the-job training, investing in youth employment.
On Labor Day, we honor the contributions that hard-working men and women make every day to our nation’s strength and vitality. We recommit ourselves to helping more people enjoy the dignity of work, and helping them acquire the skills and get the opportunities they need to reach the American Dream.
Thomas E. Perez is U.S. Secretary of Labor.