Perez: We’re Getting ‘Our Butts Kicked’ on Workforce Investment

The Labor secretary says U.S. spending on public-sector training efforts is lagging.

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. 
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
April 10, 2014, 5 p.m.

Labor Sec­ret­ary Thomas Perez sat down earli­er this week with At­lantic Me­dia Ed­it­or­i­al Dir­ect­or Ron­ald Brown­stein to dis­cuss the chal­lenge of up­grad­ing Amer­ic­an work­ers’ skills. Perez spoke at the spring sum­mit for Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Next Amer­ica pro­ject one day after Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced a new Youth Ca­reer­Con­nect grant pro­gram to pro­mote the de­vel­op­ment of sec­ond­ary schools, such as New York City’s P-TECH, that com­bine high school and com­munity-col­lege de­grees with work ex­per­i­ence in one ac­cel­er­ated pack­age. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

In terms of up­grad­ing skills, what is the re­l­at­ive bal­ance of re­spons­ib­il­ity between the pub­lic sec­tor — and the kinds of pro­grams that you ad­min­is­ter — and the private sec­tor?

I think it’s a part­ner­ship. I spend as much time with [Com­merce Sec­ret­ary] Penny Pritzker as with any­one in the Cab­in­et. We’re try­ing to work with the busi­ness com­munity to un­der­stand not only what the de­mand needs are, but what are the un­der­ly­ing core com­pet­en­cies that are es­sen­tial to meet those de­mand needs and what can we do to scale up cre­den­tials that would be in­dustry-re­cog­nized and would be stack­able [and] port­able.

Do Amer­ic­an em­ploy­ers in­vest enough in train­ing their work­ers?

Amer­ic­an com­pan­ies in­vest quite a bit. But with mid­sized and smal­ler em­ploy­ers, a lot of times they’re not cap­able of hav­ing their own train­ing de­part­ment in a way some­body like Siemens can have. A big part of what we’re try­ing to do is re­cog­nize that we need to build an eco­nom­ic sys­tem that en­ables every­body to get ac­cess [to ef­fect­ive train­ing]. You com­pare the pub­lic-sec­tor in­vest­ment in work­force in the U.S. with oth­er coun­tries and once again we kind of get our butts kicked. A fun­da­ment­al chal­lenge right now for us is to demon­strate more ef­fect­ively the re­turn on in­vest­ment from our pub­lic-work­force sys­tem.

The pres­id­ent just an­nounced the Youth Ca­reer­Con­nect grants. What is the prob­lem you’re try­ing to solve there?

To provide a ca­reer path­way for people that is rel­ev­ant to ex­ist­ing de­mand needs and, in that pro­cess, give people ex­pos­ure to the op­por­tun­it­ies that are out there. At Sarah Goode Academy in Chica­go — this is a STEM academy — I’m guess­ing that 90 per­cent or more of the stu­dents would qual­i­fy for free and re­duced meals. If you ask them, “What did you do last sum­mer?” [they tell you,] “I came to school and I took geo­metry.” Then they were go­ing with their ment­ors at IBM to see what it’s like to be in the work­force. They are aim­ing high. We’ve got to give our kids the op­por­tun­ity to get these ex­per­i­ences that get them aim­ing high.

Do you think these kinds of pro­grams could be a sig­ni­fic­ant con­trib­ut­or to the way kids are edu­cated?

In short: ab­so­lutely. This isn’t a pan­acea, but I think this is a very prom­ising mod­el.

You al­luded to the re­view of fed­er­al job-train­ing pro­grams that Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden is con­duct­ing. What should we ex­pect from that?

A blue­print that will en­able us to help more people up-skill and get ac­cess to the in-de­mand jobs that are out there, and [also] ideas for how to scale pro­grams that work. We’ve got a little bit of a tree-fall­ing-in-the-woods chal­lenge be­cause there’s great in­nov­a­tion at loc­al and state levels, but these solu­tions, in my ex­per­i­ence, tend to be re­gion­al. I want to be able to look every­body in the eye and say, “If you’re will­ing to work hard and get the skills to com­pete, we’re go­ing to find that road map for you.”

Why are there so many fed­er­al jobs pro­grams, and do they need to be con­sol­id­ated?

The best way to an­swer that ques­tion is to give you an ex­ample. There are five dif­fer­ent fund­ing streams for vet­er­ans. There are some vets who just need help writ­ing their résumé, and they’re off and run­ning. There’s a fund­ing stream that en­ables us to help vets with dis­ab­il­it­ies. Some vets are home­less. I don’t think of those five fund­ing streams as five pro­grams. I think of these like apps on an iPhone. In some cases, you may need all five of those apps to help them; in some cases, you might just need em­ploy­ment ser­vices. I don’t think the most im­port­ant ques­tion is that num­ber [of pro­grams]. I think the most im­port­ant ques­tion is: What is our op­er­at­ing philo­sophy for how we can meet the de­mand needs of em­ploy­ers and the up-skilling needs of work­ers?

Stephanie Czekalinski contributed to this article.
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