Labor Secretary Says U.S. Needs to Stop ‘Getting Our Butts Kicked’ by Other Countries in Workforce Investment

Thomas Perez: Skills training is the sleeper issue in America.

National Journal
Amy Sullivan
April 9, 2014, 11:14 a.m.

Labor Sec­ret­ary Thomas Perez offered a blunt as­sess­ment of the chal­lenges fa­cing the United States over the com­ing dec­ades in or­der for the coun­try to de­vel­op the kind of skilled, flex­ible work­force that can ef­fect­ively com­pete in a glob­al eco­nomy. 

“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,” Perez said Tues­day at a Na­tion­al Journ­al event un­der­writ­ten by the An­nie E. Ca­sey Found­a­tion, the Col­lege Board, and the Rock­e­feller Found­a­tion. “A key fun­da­ment­al chal­lenge has been to demon­strate more ef­fect­ively the re­turn on in­vest­ment in our work­force sys­tem.” 

The work­ers who will in­creas­ingly provide the key to Amer­ic­an com­pet­it­ive­ness are not those in whom the coun­try has tra­di­tion­ally in­ves­ted the most re­sources. By 2030, all of the net in­crease in the U.S. work­force is pro­jec­ted to come from non­white em­ploy­ees, mak­ing it even more crit­ic­al to provide young minor­it­ies with ac­cess to pro­grams that will im­prove their edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment and al­low them to in­crease their skill level.

Earli­er this week, Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced more than $100 mil­lion in fed­er­al grants to in­nov­at­ive edu­ca­tion pro­grams and part­ner­ships that help stu­dents ac­quire work ex­per­i­ence and in­dustry-rel­ev­ant edu­ca­tion and train­ing. Perez noted that he works closely with Edu­ca­tion Sec­ret­ary Arne Duncan and Com­merce Sec­ret­ary Penny Pritzker to make sure that these ef­forts are not siloed but in­stead in­clude the in­volve­ment of both edu­cat­ors and em­ploy­ers. 

“We’re really try­ing to en­gage with busi­ness lead­ers and edu­cat­ors to fig­ure out what cre­den­tials we can de­vel­op that are port­able and rel­ev­ant,” Perez said. “Skill de­vel­op­ment is lifelong. And com­munity col­leges are the secret sauce of up-skilling.”

A Col­lege Board/Na­tion­al Journ­al Next Amer­ica Poll that was re­leased at the same event found that the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans — 90 per­cent — who sought more train­ing after high school would do it again, par­tic­u­larly those who at­ten­ded a four- or two-year col­lege, even if they nev­er ob­tained a de­gree. At the same time, the per­cent­age of Amer­ic­ans who be­lieve that young people need a four-year col­lege de­gree in or­der to suc­ceed con­tin­ues to de­cline, drop­ping more than 10 per­cent­age points in the past two years. 

That’s one reas­on the ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues to high­light the work of early-col­lege high schools and academies that al­low stu­dents to ob­tain a high school dip­loma, an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree or equi­val­ent cre­den­tial, and work ex­per­i­ence in four years. 

Perez said that while spe­cif­ic job-skills solu­tions can vary by re­gion and in­dustry, there are three con­sist­ent char­ac­ter­ist­ics of suc­cess­ful train­ing pro­grams: “They need to in­clude part­ner­ships, they need to be de­mand-driv­en, and they need to meet the learner where he or she is.”

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