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Remarks on Workforce Training at Madison Area Technical College, Madison, Wisconsin

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Acting Deputy Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank
Remarks on Workforce Training at Madison Area Technical College, Madison, Wisconsin

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Before I begin, I especially want to say a few words about our host today, Madison Area Technical College. I was just given a tour, and I’m really impressed by what’s happening here.

I just had the pleasure of seeing a training class focused on the technologies of hybrid vehicles. This class helps auto technicians update and improve their skills, so that they and their employers can serve new clients.

What you’re doing at Madison College is important to Madison. . . to Wisconsin. . . and to America. The diverse and rigorous education offered here has made a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of people throughout the region.

And it’s more than just technical training improving the employment opportunities for individual workers. You’re helping to create a workforce that will attract innovative and growing companies to your community, building the foundation for a 21st Century economy. 

I often get the chance to talk with CEOs and business leaders across the country. And everywhere I go, they tell me that one of their chief concerns is having the highly skilled workers they need to power their companies.

It’s a concern shared by the president, because it’s absolutely crucial for long-term job-creation and economic growth. 

And make no mistake, jobs are what this administration is focused on. 

In his State of the Union address a few weeks ago, President Obama laid out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last–an economy built on American ingenuity, the skills of our workers and a renewal of American values.

It was a vision for an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same rules.

There is a basic American promise that if you work hard enough, you will earn enough to raise your family, pay your bills and save a little for retirement. In the past decade, our economy has not consistently delivered on that promise.  Even before the recession, incomes for middle-income families were stagnant, despite overall economic growth.

There are a number of policy issues we could talk about today that would change that and help create jobs and create long-term growth.  We could talk about making sure our small businesses can innovate and create new products; we could talk about the need to invest in our nation’s infrastructure – its roads, and ports, and electric utility grid, and high-speed internet connections. But because we’re at Madison College, what I’m going to talk about is the power of a highly skilled workforce.

The president in his State of the Union address said: “Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that–openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work.”

President Obama called for more programs just like the ones offered here on the Truax campus. He requested that Congress help him support more colleges that teach people the skills that businesses need–or as he put it, “give community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers.”

This push is so important because a globally competitive economy requires a globally competitive workforce. Among other things, we need to ensure we have workers trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics–the so-called “STEM” fields. Over the last decade, growth in STEM job openings climbed three times as fast as other jobs. And STEM jobs are not just open to people with masters in Engineering or Ph.D.s in nanotechnology. Up to a third of STEM jobs are filled by workers without a college degree. . . people who are engineering technicians, computer support specialists, network system analysts, or network and computer system administrators.

This is no surprise to Madison College graduates. I understand Madison is one of the only technical colleges in the U.S. with a dedicated workforce training program in the STEM fields. We need more places like this all over America.

Consider this: In recent years, only about 13 percent of U.S. college graduates got degrees in science, technology, engineering or math. That is much lower than other countries like Korea and Germany at 25 percent.

We can do better. And we must, because the jobs of tomorrow will be powered by STEM.

You see that recognition in the event the president is hosting today in Washington–the second White House Science Fair, which celebrates the student winners of a broad range of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions from across the country. The event is part of President Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign to inspire students to excel in math and science.

Of course, how we should go about boosting training programs and skills-based education is a source of much debate in Washington. 

On one side, there are people who believe in cutting funding and relying on federal fiscal austerity to shape our economic future. 

But any approach where we blindly cut the budget could be harmful to America’s competitiveness in the long term. These approaches ignore the very strategies that helped make America the preeminent economic power of the 20th century.

Instead we need to make smart investments that will pay off.

Already this administration in fiscal year 2010 invested $3.4 billion in STEM education, supporting teachers, internships and workforce training.

One area where the government is a vital partner with the private sector is, in fact, technical training. 

For instance, the Commerce Department, through our Economic Development Administration, was proud to team up with Madison College recently to provide mobile technical training opportunities both on-campus and throughout the region. The training focused on advanced manufacturing and automotive technology.

In addition, the Commerce Department has been working hand-in-hand with hundreds of local small- and medium-sized manufacturers through our Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

Another exciting collaboration between our WMEP program and folks here is the Second-Chance Partners for Education, where high-school students at risk for not graduating are offered an alternative after their sophomore year.

In this program, they learn manufacturing skills for six hours a day and spend two hours a day working on getting their high school diploma. These students are able to graduate with their high school class and also have practical job skills.

I’ve heard of one young man who will graduate on time in June. The following Monday, he will start at a $50,000-a-year manufacturing job. 

Making connections among manufacturers, educators and workers is central to filling the skills gap that the president highlighted in the State of the Union address. 

Now, let me be clear. This administration does not believe government has all the answers. But we do believe that by working together, we can identify what works, build on that, and spread the best ideas that help businesses grow, innovate, and create jobs.

And we just saw some good news on that front. Last week, we learned that the economy is continuing to heal from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent, the lowest it’s been since President Obama took office. In January, we added 50,000 jobs alone in manufacturing. Over the past two years, we’ve added 3.7 million new jobs in total.

But even though the economy has added private sector jobs every month for almost two straight years, there is still work to be done. The president and this administration will not be satisfied until everyone who wants a job has one.

This is why we must ensure that all Americans receive a quality education and that businesses have the infrastructure and workforce they need to operate and excel. 

The Obama administration is dedicated to helping lay that foundation for growth at schools like Madison College–which will, in turn, allow businesses in Madison and all over the country to build something special on top of that foundation.

That’s how we put more people to work.

That’s how we help businesses grow.

That’s how we ensure that American workers and American communities compete and thrive in the global economy. 
Good luck and keep up the great work!