In another endorsement of Western Pennsylvania's post-industrial recovery, President Obama on Wednesday called the Community College of Allegheny County “an outstanding model” of job creation worthy of national replication.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden used CCAC's West Hills Center, a vocational training facility in North Fayette, as a backdrop to announce $600 million in competitive grant programs for job training and apprenticeship initiatives.
“We want to replicate your model across the country. You're doing something right that's making a difference in people's lives, and we want to spread the word,” Obama told a crowd of about 275 people during a 20-minute speech.
To win a grant, community colleges and foundations would partner with private industry to establish training programs and apprenticeships that would make it easier for graduates to land jobs.
“There's not a reason in the world why we can't be the manufacturing capital of the world,” Biden said during a six-minute speech introducing Obama that included several references to the vice president's Scranton roots.
The Department of Labor will accept applications for nearly $500 million in grants until July 7 from institutions that collaborate with businesses to figure out economic sectors with jobs to fill. Another $100 million will flow through the American Apprenticeship Grants competition to add apprenticeships.
Money for the programs will be redirected from existing funds in the federal budget, the White House said.
About 80 organizations in Allegheny County train and find jobs for as many as 40,000 workers a year, said Stafani Pashman, CEO of Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, a Downtown job training nonprofit.
“Just because a program exists doesn't mean people know about it,” Pashman said.
The importance of workforce training programs grew rapidly in recent years, she said. An increasingly complex economy, in which job duties change in response to automation and cheaper foreign labor, requires workers to adapt their skills. For some manufacturing jobs, for instance, workers don't just operate machinery — they must program the computers that control them and maintain the machines, as well. Since the Great Recession sent millions to the unemployment lines, employers can be more selective about who they hire, she said.
“You see, sometimes painfully, where technology shutters factories and (global competition) ships jobs overseas,” Obama said. “We're not going to reverse those trends. We can't stop technology. We've got a global economy where we're going to have to compete.”
American manufacturing jobs have been making a slow comeback since 2010, but the sector — once a broad path into the middle class — continues to struggle under the pressures of cheaper overseas labor and increased automation. There were 12.1 million manufacturing jobs in March — 600,000 more than in January 2010, but 2 million fewer than 10 years ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“A lot of people don't feel that progress in their own lives. The stock market is going great. ... Folks at the top are doing better than ever,” Obama said. “But too many Americans, if they're lucky enough to have a job, are working harder and harder just to get by.”
Republicans blame Democrats for holding up GOP-backed bills that they say could spur economic growth, “The Republican-led House has passed numerous bipartisan jobs bills — like the SKILLS Act — yet President Obama and the Democrats who control the Senate haven't lifted a finger to advance these common sense pieces of legislation,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said in an emailed statement.
Pashman welcomes the new grant programs, but remains wary of the bureaucracy that underlies government programs.
“We need a more fluid, evolutionary approach,” Pashman said. “As long as we're placing people in jobs, that's the metric we should be judged by.”
Bureaucratic hurdles were higher 10 or 15 years ago, said Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton. During a decade in which American workers lost ground to overseas competition, officials at the state and federal level learned to remove barriers rather than erect them, he said.
“I think everyone's better at this,” Casey said. Western Pennsylvania, in particular, has learned how to survive in the modern economy, he said.
“In some ways, the whole region has been a model for how to reinvent the American economy,” Casey said
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Tory Parrish contributed to this report.
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