U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez has announced $150 million in new funding for states to develop and expand job-training programs. Since January 2014, a total of $1 billion in federal spending has been targeted to workforce development and employment opportunities for people suffering the lingering effects of the Great Recession.
The money is authorized under the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. States can apply for the newly released money to help fund apprenticeships, on-the-job training, partnerships with employers, and industry certification programs. The overall goal, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, is to train people—especially the long-term unemployed—in industries where there is now increasing demand for skilled labor.
As manufacturing picks up and Baby Boomers retire from middle-class blue-collar jobs, there’s plenty of need for additional workers, said machine-tool instructor Keith Knight at Mount Hood Community College near Portland, Oregon.
“As far as industries looking for these jobs—Boeing, Oregon Iron Works, the majority of industries—they’re starting to see more and more work showing up,” said Knight. The community college’s programs for machine-tool operator, automotive technician, and welder all fill up quickly, and many students are able to line up jobs before they graduate, instructors said.
Knight said job training can help someone with only a high school diploma, or a two-year associate’s degree, land a higher-skilled or better-paying job.
That’s what attracted Andrew Stevens, 27, to the community college program. “This is ‘Plan F,’” said Stevens ,as he sat at his workbench disassembling and rebuilding a Chrysler transmission in the bright, clean automotive classroom. “I’ve done many things—from guiding fishing in Alaska, to laying ceramic tile—which is no fun—to being a prosthetics technician—I made fake arms and legs. I was pretty much at the top of my pay scale, making as much as I was going to make, and decided that wasn’t enough.”
Stevens’ instructor, Steve Michner, said auto technicians can ultimately earn $45,000 to $55,000 per year.
Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, said job-training programs can help individual workers boost their earnings and job opportunities, and they can help companies fill positions that require specific skills. But they can’t necessarily address high local or regional unemployment—for instance, in old industrial cities or depressed urban areas.
“The fancy term is ‘spatial mismatch’—people live in the wrong part of the country from where the jobs are,” explained Van Horn. “There might be lots of jobs in Southeastern Louisiana. But the people who used to work in the construction industry in New Jersey either can’t, or don’t want to, move there. Or, go to the Dakotas, which is another place that’s booming.”
Van Horn pointed out that sometimes the spatial mismatch is hyper-local. Some neighborhoods in New Orleans, for instance, have high poverty and unemployment, even though oil refineries and chemical plants may need skilled workers just a couple hours away.
Many economists say skills training is important at this point in the economic recovery, so employers can fill jobs in regions and industrial sectors that are growing strongly. But also, employers need to generate more jobs overall, in more places, to pick up the slack in the labor market nationwide.